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.