Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Winter Atlasing

We are now in the third and final year of the Winter Atlas fieldwork in Spain (organised by SEO/BirdLife). It has been a real highlight of the winter for me. I am doing seven 10 km squares and visits to each entail about a six hour walk along paths or tracks, counting every single bird seen or heard and estimating whether it is within 25 metres of the path or not. Add to this a description of the habitat every fifteen minutes and you can imagine the amount of information that is being gathered. This then gets put on the computer and sent on-line to Madrid. I think that the results will be fascinating, giving us a picture of not just where different species occur in the winter across Spain, but also their relative abundance and habitat preferences.

The planning is quite complicated. There is no point doing this type of survey work if it is raining, very windy or foggy...because this would create bias in the detectability of birds (they will be harder to count). I also avoid going out on the days that there will be hunters out shooting. I do not want to put myself at risk quietly walking down small paths in wooded areas where shooting is going on: this means weekends and Thursdays are out (the days that hunting takes place here in the winter).

At the personal level it offers discoveries on many levels. To cover each 10 km square thoroughly takes me along paths and tracks I have never walked on before, I discover routes along valleys and across truly does take me off my regular birding "beaten track" which is no bad thing. Counting everything has also given me a much better idea of the status of birds locally: be it the number of wintering Bluethroat and Snipe on the ricefields or Blackcaps in the olive groves. I have also come across birds which are highly under-recorded in this area, such as Woodcock and Bullfinch (considered quite a rare winter visitor, but I have found it on three of my squares so far).

There are also the great memories that come from seeing quite special things, even of common birds: a Dartford Warbler searching for trapped tiny insects on a bank of snow, a delightful party of eight Common Chiffchaff feeding on the ground together, a flock of 80 Serins that one could hear from across a huge field...

Yes, I am looking forward to this third field season of Winter Atlas work very much.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Crane Festival in Extremadura

This weekend saw the culmination of the first Crane Festival in Extremadura, sponsored by the Extremadura Tourist Board and with support from SEO/BirdLife and other NGOs. The activities were focused around Moheda Alta, an information and visitors centre in the heart of the most important wintering area for cranes in Extremadura. According to the 2007 census, about 80,000 cranes winter in Extremadura (about 30% of the total European population) and about half of these occur in this central zone, about half an hour from where we live, attracted by the choice of rice stubble, maize stubble and the traditional acorn crop of the dehesa holm oaks on which to feed.

I was involved on both days taking coach parties of visitors from Cáceres and Trujillo to enjoy what the Festival would have to offer. First stop was the Sierra Brava reservoir. This hosts one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in Spain (third place after the Coto Doñana and the Ebro Delta - and given its much smaller size, the actual number of birds per unit area will be highest on Sierra Brava). Here, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 duck, mainly dabbling duck, spend the winter. These too are attracted to the stubble fields, where they feed during the night, spending the day roosting on the reservoir. The sight is remarkable, a vast carpet of duck quietly resting. We then entered the rice growing area and soon large feeding groups of cranes were seen. We had sightings too of Black-winged Kites - this is one of the best places in Extremadura to see this attractive bird.

At Moheda Alta, we took the visitors on guided walks and there were stands, exhibitions, talks, activities for children and a local folk dancing group. Throughout the day, parties of cranes flew across the Festival grounds, at one point joined by a soaring Golden Eagle. Probably about 500 people took part over the two days, not bad for the first event of its type and I am sure that the organisers will be encouraged to make this an annual event. It is very important to build up interest amongst the people of the area about this wonderful bird, which already has such a high profile in the culture and folklore of peoples in northern Europe. It would the great to see links between the Festival here and similar events elsewhere in Europe. Cranes are such a prominent part of the winter scene in Extremadura, yet the most important roosting site of all is under threat from two large thermal solar plants.

On both days in the late afternoon, we repaired to a vantage point offering a superb view of the ricefields, dehesa and sierras in the background. As darkness fell, large parties of Grey Lag Goose (several thousand in all) flew from the feeding grounds to roost on nearby reservoirs. Skeins and lines of Cranes started crossing the sky, hundreds and hundreds, the adults giving their bugling call, the young birds their higher-pitched whistles. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful spectacles nature has to offer.

Friday, 20 November 2009

A very late Woodchat Shrike and displaying Black-winged Kites

Another two superb days in the field, with some surprises and memorable sightings. The day before yesterday we ventured out on the plains to the west of us. It is curious how varied the landscape is at the moment in terms of "greenness". After the long dry summer we have had very few days of rain this autumn and most of the open ground has the barest of flushes of new growth. Farmers are still having to provide supplementary feed. Yet to the north of Trujillo there is a zone stunning in its autumnal beauty of emerald green grass and yellow crucifers in bloom. Our friend that lives there is convinced that it is thanks to some localised showers that missed the rest of us.

Most of our route was through drier terrain. At our first stop we found two groups of Great Bustard (37 birds in total) and watched a sky seemingly full of a flock of about 100 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, which split into a myriad of smaller parties (twos and threes) circling and calling. A Carrion Crow was an unusual record here, but one frequented the area last year, so perhaps it is the same individual returning. We next visited a beautiful rocky valley where a pair of Bonelli's Eagles watched us from the top of a pylon. Out on the plains again, we came across two more parties of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a couple of Black-bellied Sandgrouse too, but what was most surprising was an adult Woodchat Shrike which fly across the road in front of us and then found again perched on a fence nearby, close enough for a photo to be taken. Up until now the latest ever recorded in Extremadura was late September, so this is an extraordinarily late bird. Close by we watched a female Merlin feeding on what was probably a Meadow Pipit on the ground. We spent the best part of the afternoon beside a small reservoir where a few Cranes rested along with Cormorants and Black-headed Gulls. But the highlight undoubtedly was the family of three Otters which were enchanting as they played on a grassy bank, tumbling over each other, play-biting and chasing each other. We completed the day in another stretch of steppe, finding more Great Bustards and a Common Starling amongst a flock of Spotless Starlings. The Spanish name for the former means "Painted Starling" an apt name for its startlingly attractive winter plumage.

Yesterday was spent in the rice-growing area where the harvest is now almost finished. At this time of year the area is dominated by rice stubble fields, with family parties and some large flocks of Cranes feed. A few White Stork were also present and, following the combines, large flocks of Cattle Egret and Black-headed Gulls. Some fields had been ploughed, attracting small numbers of waders: Kentish and Ringed Plover, a Black-tailed Godwit, Greenshank, Dunlin and Little Stint. We had brief sightings of two or three wintering Bluethroat flying into ditches. A couple of male Hen Harrier and one ring-tail were seen quartering the stubble fields, whilst the embanked pool that I always check had a Black Stork and a Great White Egret. We found three groups of Great Bustard during the day and also enjoyed the sight of a flock of about 50 Little Bustard in flight, turning simultaneously and thus appearing alternately white and brown. So warm was it during the middle of the day that even a Viperine Snake was found basking ona dirt track.

For me the most memorable part of the day was a pair of Black-winged Kite. We watched them perched in separate trees. One then flew to the other and they mated. The male then took off and performed the most beautiful display flight, calling a soft "peee" and rising higher and higher in a wide spiral, performing a hovering, fluttering flight the whole time. It flew higher and higher until we lost sight of it against the clear blue sky.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Bathing Black Vulture

After being away for almost ten days, it was great to be heading north of Trujillo again with two guests to enjoy a day in Monfragüe National Park. Despite a brief shower en route and some rather threatening low cloud in the morning, the day got progressively brighter and warmer. Stopping first to view the iconic cliff face at Peña Falcón, what struck one was the almost complete absence of vultures in the sky. The reason was simple - all were waiting for the air to warm, because the rockface was full of birds. Indeed marking the skyline, the perimeter, as it were, of the cliff, was a row of vultures, each equidistant from each other. As the sun broke through the cloud, many spread-eagled their wings, tilting the angle to maximise the surface exposed to the warmth.

We progressed through the park and had a lengthy stay at the wonderful Portilla del Tiétar. A skein of Cranes flew over as we arrived. It is such a peaceful spot and their trumpeting echoed across the gorge. Vultures circled above us and for a few minutes were joined by a fine Spanish Imperial Eagle, the sun catching its forewing, making the white leading edge appear almost luminous. We spent at least two hours happily watching the wheeling vultures, and, as it does in such situations, the conversation kept returning to these birds. "Had I ever seen a vulture drink?" I thought about it - "No, never" I replied. There are some birds that one rarely if ever see drinking, yet vultures are very unlikely to do it under the cover of dusk, as they try to avoid being airbourne early or late during the day, and yet here in Monfragüe where there must be at least two thousand individual vultures, one does not see even one coming down to drink. What do they do? The thought stuck in my mind as we proceeded to the next stop.

I got out of the car and almost immediately noticed a movement at some distance along the river bank. I checked it with the telescope. It was a Black Vulture splashing about in the water. Not drinking exactly, but bathing. It was the first time I had seen this happen. We watched it go in the water at least four times, and then it hopped up the bank and spread-eagled its wings to dry the sodden feathers. No matter how many times one can visit a place like Monfragüe, there will always be something new.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Quinces and Garden Warbler

One of the joys about living here are the quince trees. We have several dotted around the garden and although like everything here they have suffered in the drought, so many of the fruits were much smaller than normal, I picked enough over the weekend to make 28 jars of Quince Jam and to freeze four kilos for cooking next year. Quinces look a bit like large yellow apples, but they cannot be eaten raw as they are almost as hard as rocks. In Spain the favourite preparation is a Quince (or Membrillo) "cheese" : a stiff, amber-coloured jelly which goes brilliantly with real cheese, traditionally a good Manchego. We found an easy recipe for Quince Jam which has become a favourite for our guests. Claudia has also invented a delicious dessert of stewed Quinces, which is superb with a dollop of cream. So most of what seemed like the last weekend of summer (ridiculously high temperatures for the start of November) was spent stirring boiling jam in the preserving pan and filling jam jars. Today, the weather has changed. It is a good ten degrees cooler with a fresh northerly wind. I spent the day indoors as well, catching up on paper work. Taking a break to prepare lunch I stood at my favourite spot indoors: by the kitchen window. Just a few metres away a Hawfunch was gorging itself on the cypress cones, along with a bright-looking Greenfinch almost dwarfed in size. A couple of wintering Blackcaps pecked at olives, a fine male Black Redstart perched on the stone wall whilst a party of House Sparrows pecked at a clump of weeds. Something else was there too: a Garden Warbler finding small insects to feed on. That was quite extraordinary. I see Garden Warblers in the garden as part of the autumn passage in August and September, but this bird is, I think, almost a month later than the latest ever recorderd in Extremadura. All this whilst waiting for the kettle to boil!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Wolf watching in Zamora

Last weekend I went with my son Patrick to the province of Zamora (in Castille y Leon) to stay with some Dutch friends in the village of Villanueva de Valrojo, on the edge of the Sierra de la Culebra reserve. Zamora holds one of the highest densities of Wolf, outside Alaska and Siberia, and there are sites near the village which offer one the best chances of seeing this magnificent, but very shy, animal. Within a couple of hours of arriving we were positioned on a hillside, overlooking an expanse of heathland and a pine wood. Rangers put out carcases from time to time at the edge of the wood and from the number of Griffon and Black Vultures present, it was obvious that a carcase had been placed there recently.

The view from our vantage point was superb. In the distance were the peaks of the Sierra de la Cabrera, in the foreground the mosaic of heathland, woodland, rough pasture and small stubble fields providing Wolves both cover and hunting grounds. Two alert Red Deer appeared on the heath, making their way with great caution across the open ground, somehow seeing much more alert that those that I am used to seeing in Monfragüe National Park, where, alas, there are no longer Wolves.

Suddenly my friend whispered "lobo" (wolf) and there, along the edge of the pinewood, I saw my first Wolf. It was a large male and it sauntered along in the open ground. It disppeared behind a pine tree and then we found it again, this time a few metres inside the pinewood, pulling at the ribs of the carcase. Despite the falling light and our distance, the views were incredible. Somehow, seeing the wolf inside the wood this time added more magic, as often we saw just fractions of its body behind the tree trunks. Patrick was excited, especially when he saw it do a "poo" (I missed that!).

It slinked off into the wood and darkness fell. We were to go out the following morning and evening, but we did not see another Wolf. During our stay we had views of Otter, Fox and Red Deer, as well as a good selection of birds such as Crossbill and Firecrest. But the highlight of course was the Wolf, a top predator in a open, unfenced landscape - it was easy to see why this region is such a stronghold. Just a few days beforehand the prize-winning photo of an Iberian Wolf jumping over a gate at night had been published by the BBC Natural History magazine, it had whetted the appetite for our visit and we left supremely satisfied.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Cranes are back

I have been away since late September and travelled back this morning by bus from Madrid, leaving at dawn (8 am here!) and heading south-west on the motorway towards Trujillo. It was a glorious autumn morning and as we approached Extremadura so the landscape became greener - that wonderful flush of green that even just a couple days of autumn rain can entice from the soil. Claudia picked me up just past 11 am in Trujillo and took me back home. It felt that I had been away for ages and it was good to be back. Just as I was getting out of the car the unmistakeable bugling of passing cranes could be heard. The sky was completely cloudless and it took a bit of time to find the distant birds against the intense blue. Soon we could hear some more, this time a lot closer. A party of perhaps a hundred, momentarily disorientated, circling in a pack before two or three figured out the correct direction and thus formed an irregular skein, proceeding southwards. During the next few hours several more parties came over. Claudia told me that she had heard cranes passing over for a few days now, but these were my first of the autumn and on my first day back! What a welcome! For me, the day I see the first cranes of the autumn is always one of the top days of the year, and what makes it so special is that invariably they will be flying over our home against an azure sky.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Moving the firewood and other autumn tales

Some absolutely superb autumn days with the air crystal clear and without a cloud in the sky. A very good time to move the four tons of encina (holm oak) wood that we bought in the spring and had been soaking up the sun during the summer to covered storage, in advance of autumn rains. There is no shortage of firewood here. Much of this part of Extermadura is covered by the characteristic open grazing woodland, called dehesa. Each of the millions of holm oak trees that dominate this landscape is pruned every ten to fifteen years, with boughs and branches sawn off to open the canopy and to encourage a more horizontal growth. This provides more shade for the animals, keeps the tree short enough to manage easily, will encourage fresh growth and more acorns, as well as yielding huge amounts of wood for firewood and charcoal production. Four tons is enough to last us two winters, but we did a deal with Fernando the neighbour, so that this year he will take half.

So a couple of mornings ago, Fernando and I were joined by another neighbour, Geoff (who hails from the Midlands, but now lives in the village and is known locally as Paco – because no one can pronounce his real name) and his son-in-law Dai. Loading up the back of Paco’s van we moved two tons to Fernando’s yard and then two tons to the entrance of our firewood shed. The whole operation took 90 minutes. Fernando then invited us over for refreshments: cold beers, local goat’s cheese, home-made chorizo sausage and local tomatoes. The refreshments took a further 45 minutes – which I feel is a fair distribution of time! I now have this winter’s firewood wonderfully dry and well protected.

As well as that, I have been taking guests out into the field. On one day this week to the Monfragüe National Park where we had glorious views of an adult Bonelli’s Eagle against a clear blue sky, as well as two White-rumped Swift, Egygtian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle and Black Stork – remaining summer migrants. The transition from summer and autumn was well evident with some juvenile Griffon Vultures still being fed at the nest, whilst Red Deer stags were rutting. Myths that pigs do not swim were well put to rest by the fine sight of a female Wild Boar and two piglets swimming the width of the Tajo river.

On another day we visited the plains to the west of Trujillo. Highlights included an adult Golden Eagle, several Great Bustard and a flock of over 30 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, a Black Wheatear in a rocky river valley, but most memorable was the sheer abundance of passage migrants: Northern Wheatear, Whinchat, Willow Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and some male Common Redstarts as almost constant companions on the roadside fences as we followed our route through the day. It really has been an amazing autumn for these migrants.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Evening at the rice fields

Well autumn has come and we are enjoying a significant drop in temperature, fresher westerly breezes and showers of rain. Yesterday I headed out to the rice fields with our friend John Hawkins. He and his wife, Anthea, have a holiday home close to Trujillo. John is an excellent photographer and many of his bird photos grace themselves on our website and blog. We made our visit in the late afternoon, which even just a few days ago would have been considered an unproductive time because of the heat. Yesterday, it was just perfect with a glorious evening light bathing the paddies and the cleanness of the air ensuring that we had superb views of the Villuercas mountains as a back drop.

The pool that I regularly check was very low, and doubtless because of the concentration of fish in the shallows, had attracted several anglers. At first glance it appeared almost bird-less, but as we checked the edges of the remaining flashes of water we picked up a nice variety of waders, no great numbers (almost everything in single figures) but a total of 13 species, including Temminck’s Stint, Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper. A couple of Spoonbills flew in to settle there as we watched, whilst over the bank hovered a Black-winged Kite. Beyond, over the rice fields flock of 13 Glossy Ibis circled round. This is species invariably turns up here in September, often in double figures, presumably on passage or dispersal, perhaps from the Coto Doñana? We do not know for sure.

There were Willow Warblers seemingly everywhere, and good numbers too of Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, as well as Whinchat. A pale-phase Booted Eagle circled overhead, whilst a ringtail and a juvenile Montagu’s Harrier quartered the fields. As we left, a nice group of Yellow Wagtails and two Wood Sandpipers foraged together in a damp field, and about twenty Little Bustard gathered around broken straw bales on a dry sheep pasture. Further along, a group of ten Great Bustard had started to feed in a stubble field. The sun was setting and parties of White Storks drifted to their autumn roosts at the same time as Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were on a bee-line for the Sierra Brava reservoir.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Is summer coming to an end?

Coming back after ten days away, the heat that has been such a feature of this long summer still persisted. Whilst I had been away, there had been a fire at the entrance of the village, spreading across several fields on both sides of the main road, encircling a house and the tiny village cementery. The herbaceous vegetation will quickly recover, but I wonder how the trees that were affected will fare. Time will tell. The countryside is a tinderbox and in a way it is surprising that fires are not more common. Most people here take great care.

Just the last couple of days, we have had a couple of thunderstorms and there is a slight freshness in the morning, signalling perhaps that the edge is coming off the heat and autumn will be arriving. It is overdue.

Birdwise, autumn passage is at full strength here. Out on the plains, semi-deserts now, there are many Northern Wheatears and Whinchats, plus a few Tawny Pipits. When I was out there three mornings ago, I came across Willow Warblers as well, hopping on the ground amongst the withered and sparse vegetation. Great Bustards stalked the lanscape, bills agape panting, whilst Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse came to drink to water in a deeply-escavated dew-pond nearby. Later that day I went to the Monfragüe National Park, in the middle of the day Red Deer and Wild Boar were coming to the river to wade belly-deep and to drink. One invariably stops first at the iconic cliff of Peña Falcón, where always Griffon Vultures will be present. A Short-toed Eagle spent the entire duration of my visit perched on a rock close-by whilst I was pleased to find a Black Wheatear right at the top of the cliff opposite. This rock-loving species can be found quite readily at a number of sites near us, but in all these years, I have seen it at Peña Falcón less than half a dozen times.

The wooded habitat in the park was providing feeding grounds for Common Redstart, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers: all on passage.

Back at Monfragüe today, no sign of the Black Wheatear at Peña Falcón, but a delightful party of a dozen White-rumped Swifts. This is the largest group I have seen there of this rare (but probably unrecorded) swift which nests in disused Red-rumped Swallow nests. It is one of the last summer breeding species to arrive in Extremadura (usually in second week of May) but can still be seen into October. We had fine views of all three vulture species and at the northern viewpoint of Portilla del Tiétar, three Black Stork circled just above us. There I had another surprise, a juvenile Purple Heron flying past - the first I had seen in Monfragüe National Park and quite out-of-place to see in a rocky river valley. But that is migration, things pass through and can turn up where you least expect them sometimes, which is what makes birding at this time of year so rewarding.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Migrants moving through

I was away in the UK for a week to attend the amazing British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland last weekend and stay on a few days so see my parents in Norfolk. It was two evenings when I got back home, finding Extremadura as hot and as dry as I had left it. Such high temperatures so late in the summer are unusual. This morning I headed again to the rice fields to see how the wader passage was doing. Getting the best of the morning always requires a flexible strategy, because fields that were muddy and damp on my last visit, may be overgrown this time and much less good for birds, whereas unproductive areas previously may spring surprises. So it was this time, with fields which had been thronging with birds a month ago, now hardly worth more than a few minutes checking. The best area was the large pool, surrounded by an embankment. There was very little water, but the flashes that were there had a quite a good selection of waders: a couple of Temminck’s Stints, some Little Stint, Dunlin, Wood Sandpiper and Kentish Plover. A single Collared Pratincole remained. On the embankment, the sparse vegetation was thronging with Willow Warblers (passage migrants here). I counted no fewer than six preening on a small bare tree. Calls of Nightingale and Great Reed Warbler came from denser growth. Several juvenile Woodchat Shrikes were also around. I looked down from the embankment onto a rice field which had some small open areas, watching foraging Little Ringed Plovers, along with a Yellow Wagtail and a Tree Pipit. As I returned along the stony tracks, a small party of Short-toed Lark flew up in front of me whilst further ahead were two juvenile Montagu’s Harriers, sitting on the ground at the edge of the track, distinctive with their orangey under parts and pale border to their facial discs. Groups of Bee-eaters were lining up on the fences. Friends tell me that Spotted Flycatchers, Pied Flycatchers and Common Redstart are now moving through, so they are bound to start appearing in the garden any day now.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Visitors to the garden

Here we feel that autumn has arrived by the middle of August. It is still hot and sunny (maximum temperatures here will probably be in the thirties every day for next week or so), but the nights are lengthening and there is a freshness at dawn. Providing most evidence for the change in season are the birds. Last month in a blog I described the start of the autumn wader passage. On a my most recent visit to the rice fields nearby, there were small numbers of Little Stint now featuring amongst the Wood Sandpipers and Ruff, as well as a party of very early Common Snipe. Bright yellow juvenile Willow Warblers were foraging in the bushes, along with Sedge Warblers: both passage species here.

But the autumn passage is also visible much close to home. Because of the drought this year, the garden (watered from our own bore-hole) has become a little green, moist oasis. Almost exactly a year to the date of making a first-ever appearance on the garden-list, a Western Bonelli’s Warbler has again been around the garden. This attractive little bird nests in Extremadura in higher zones in the mountains: who knows whether this special garden visitor hails from local populations or from further north. What is certain is that it will be here just for a few days, before continuing its journey southwards. Today a Common Whitethroat was also present, a new species for our garden. Puddles on the path bring a wonderful medley of thirsty birds: Hawfinch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Blackbirds, House Sparrows, Azure-winged Magpies and Nightingales. Sitting at first light, binoculars at the ready, a mug of tea on the ground beside me, wondering what migrant visitor may make an appearance today – a great way to start the day!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

A summer evening birding on the steppes

I spent yesterday evening doing bits of business in Trujillo, and finishing at 9pm headed to snatch the last hour of daylight out on the plains of Belén, just twenty minutes from home. One first has to navigate the little village of Belén itself, where the tiny streets twist and bifurcate, like in so many Spanish villages where a moment's lapse in concentration will lead to a wrong turning down a thoroughfare that will narrow right down to a cul-de-sac. Many of these villages appear deserted during the day: the shutters are down and not a soul is visible. They come to life in the evening. Chairs are brought out and the adults sit on the edge of the street (in Belén there is no pavement so this makes the streets even narrower for passing traffic). The children play and where there are benches, at street corners, groups of older men or women (rarely mixed) will sit and gossip. One notices that all the older men and women are more or less the same size and shape: stockier and shorter than their offspring, testament of harder times in the past.

On the road out of the village, I pass small groups taking their evening walks, the famous "paseo", so appreciated in the summer when the heat makes people avoid being out of doors during the day if at all possible.

It was a tad too late as I started to cross the open plains themselves, already post-breeding flocks of Calandra Lark and Corn Bunting were pitching down to roost in areas of taller vegetation. Southern Grey Shrikes flew low over the ground, rising to perch on the roadside fence posts, whilst a Hoopoe caught the evening sunshine to perfection. I was on the look out for Great Bustard and eventually found a small group feeding at sunset on a stubble field, their darkening forms slowly striding across the field. Whilst I watched them, four Black-bellied Sandgrouse fly across my field of view and I follow them, seeing them drop down behind the bank of one of the few pools on the Belén plains with water.

I continue as far as a ruined farm building where I stop and listen. Joining the sound of cowbells, comes the beguiling sound of Stone Curlews, one starting to call and being quickly followed by another. In the gloom, I make out two forms nearby. A pair of Stone Curlew starting to feed, making a series of quick steps, body held horizontal, then stopping either to peck at the ground or to straighten up with head held high. It is a wonderful sight and I watch them as long as I can before the light starts to fade rapidly. Being nocturnal birds, their "day" was only just starting.

Returning home, I see four more Stone Curlew in flight, crossing the horizon in front of the silhouette of iconic Spanish cattle against a vivid evening sky.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

28 July 2009

Birdingextremadura blog by Martin Kelsey

The hot settled weather continues and in parts of Spain the extremely dry conditions have created a tinderbox. Big fires have been raging in eastern Spain and here in Extremadura there have been serious wildfires in the woodlands of the Hurdes, in the north-east. Yesterday a pall of smoke was discernable in the sky and a faint smell of smoke. It probably came from fires about 60 or 70 kilometres away. It has been an extremely dry year. The spring rains all but failed. The dry vegetation is significantly lower than last year. Very dry springs and summers here can have an impact on the birds. Little Bustard, for example, have very poor breeding seasons in dry springs. A friend of mine has over 30 White Stork nests on a ruin on his property. This year, for the first time ever, many pairs seemingly abandoned their young, about two weeks before they were ready to leave the nest. Some perished on the nests, whilst other youngsters flew to the ground, where they were seen drinking water from the dogs’ bowl. My friend managed to catch some of these young birds and contacted an animal rescue clinic to collect them. They arrived with their vehicle already almost full o boxes containing young storks. Clearly the phenomenon appears to be quite widespread. The reason seems to be that the parents abandoned young birds because they could not bring enough food to the nest. An important part of the storks’ diet at this time of the year is grasshoppers. This year grasshoppers have been very scarce, largely because of the drought. Normally there will be huge numbers on the plains, attracting Buzzards, Black Kites, Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Kestrel, Ravens as well as the White Storks. I suspect that all of these species have had a hard time this year.

17 July 2009

Welcome to my blog and share with me, through the seasons, encounters with nature in Extremadura, as well as life and culture in this very special part of Wild Spain.

Mid-July is traditionally seen as the quietest time of the year for birders in this part of Spain. For those with families we are already well into the school holidays and activities tend to revolve around activities with the children. It is often the hottest time of the year, so the time to get out into the field is first thing in the morning or well into the evening.

Yesterday I did just that, making a dawn visit to one of my favourite areas: an area of rice fields, beside open plains and dehesa (the famous grazing woodland) about twenty-five minutes to the south of our house. I try to visit the area as often as I can, which usually means not as often as I would like. It never disappoints, there will always be something of interest there.

As I approached the area, in the dusk of first light, a Black-winged Kite sat on a wooden electricity post beside the track, a crepuscular hunter so dawn and evenings are the best times to see this species. Once beside the paddy fields, I looked for those with sparser growth, especially with exposed mud. The first thing that struck me was the huge number of Black-winged Stilts. In the course of the morning I estimated that there were over 700 present (one field alone had over 400 in). As I looked more closely at them I could see that they included good numbers of young birds, some of them with much shorter legs and bills, clearly birds that had fledged in this area. I was also delighted to find two broods of Lapwing. This is a common winter visitor in Extremadura, but numbers were also building up at this site in early summer and seeing these chicks proved my suspicion that some had bred here. On a more distant field over a hundred Black-tailed Godwit fed, along with a few Ruff. Other migrant waders were dotted around such as Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank. There were also young Collared Pratincoles seemingly everywhere, especially fond of sitting on the track in front of me. I left the car and walked along the bank of a small dam, which had very little water and a lot of exposed shingle, ideal for Ringed, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers. On the edge of the shingle beach juvenile Gull-billed Terns waited to be fed by their parents. The rather sparrow-like chattering call of a Melodious Warbler revealed its presence in a willow beside me.

Looking down from the top of the bank onto an adjacent muddy field, I checked through another group of waders. A Green Sandpiper was feeding out in the open, and as I watched it, noticed that it was surrounded by other, smaller waders. They were adult Temminck’s Stints, a party of nine, and they were a delight of watch as they bobbed past the tufts of vegetation in the soft mud, looking like long sleek, miniature Common Sandpipers.

I have visited this site so many times, but still am over-awed to see the selection of waders on long-distance migration from high latitudes to the wetlands and coasts of the African tropics and sub-tropics, that fly across the interior of Spain finding stopover sites such as this one.