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.