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!