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.