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Showing posts from 2009

Winter Atlasing

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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 o…

Crane Festival in Extremadura

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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…

A very late Woodchat Shrike and displaying Black-winged Kites

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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 unus…

Bathing Black Vulture

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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…

Quinces and Garden Warbler

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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 j…

Wolf watching in Zamora

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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…

The Cranes are back

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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 …

Moving the firewood and other autumn tales

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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…

Evening at the rice fields

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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 …

Is summer coming to an end?

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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…

Migrants moving through

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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, …

Visitors to the garden

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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 b…

A summer evening birding on the steppes

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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…

28 July 2009

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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, …

17 July 2009

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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 w…