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Showing posts from 2010

Wonderful olives

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If you walk along the narrow lanes or tracks in the small range of hills where we live at any time from late November through to January you will be bound to hear the "thwack - thwack" of the traditional olive harvest. Families will be out in their small olive groves, using long poles to hit the branches of the trees, so that the olives fall onto nets placed on the ground below the tree. Apparently the olives drop more easily once there have been a couple of hard frosts. In the large scale commercial olive plantations elsewhere, the harvest is mechanical, but on the small family holdings, often on quite steep slopes, harvesting is really only possible by hand. The purists do not even use poles, preferring to collect the olives in their fingers. That way there is less damage to the twigs (especially to the buds) and the olives suffer less bruising. But this can be very time-consuming when one is collecting the quantities needed for oil. A skilled harvester can however use th…

The storks return

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We were sitting having lunch last Friday at a pavement cafe in the main square of our local town Trujillo on Friday, enjoying a wonderfully mild day (in the garden bees have been at the rosemary flowers). Our son Patrick looked up and spotted a White Stork standing on its nest, built on a platform beside a renovated tower (see photo). The nesting storks on the tops of the old buildings around the town's square are one of Trujillo's many attractions and the souvenir shops sell T-shirts with storks depicted. However, this was 10th December. It comes as a surprise to many of our visitors when I tell them that the White Storks are back on their nests in Trujillo by Christmas, for further north in Central Europe the storks are arriving only in early spring. The fact is our local White Storks are partial migrants, with many of the adults staying here all year round and occupying nests from mid-winter onwards (indeed in the lower altitude flood plains nearby, storks can be seen on th…

Celebrating cranes

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This weekend saw the second Crane Festival in Extremadura, organised by the government (the Junta de Extremadura) and held at the Crane Information Centre of Moheda Alta, right within the most important region in Extremadura for wintering Common Crane, indeed the largest concentration of crane in the whole of Spain. Through guided excursions, activities for children, lectures as well as an opportunity to enjoy local food and watch folk dances, the idea is to celebrate the winter spectacle cranes here and to further increase the awareness of both local people as well as visitors from many other regions of Spain of this wonderful bird. The cranes themselves do their bit. Travelling around the area over the weekend there can hardly have been a moment when the evocative trumpeting of the cranes could not be heard or there were not parties of cranes in the sky (see the attached photo taken by a guest David Palmer). They formed a continuous background for us. My job was to take groups of vi…

An exuberance of eagles

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There is nothing really quite like it. A sighting of one of our three big resident eagles species always, always brings excitement. Extremadura is one of the best places in the world to see eagles. The powerful and evocative Bonelli's Eagle (about 100 pairs here) I have mentioned several times in previous blogs, simply because for me it captures the spirit of remote, rocky valleys. The Spanish Imperial Eagle (see John Hawkins' photo) with about 50 pairs is noisy and combative, often seeking the opportunity for a tussle with a vulture. But it was the Golden Eagle (with about 125 pairs in Extremadura) which stole the show this week. The biggest of all three of the these resident species, it roams across large territories over the plains and mountains. The vast open spaces typical of Extremadura provide great hunting habitat.

It was a breezy mid-November day, with the clouds breaking from time to time to bring sunshine to the steppes. We had already seen a distant pair of Golden E…

Scores of sandgrouse

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They looked at first like distant clods of earth - dark, round shapes just below the skyline. Watching them closely, one could see them shuffling around on the short sward, occasionally one rising slightly to flap its wings, a white belly and underwing catching the low morning sunlight. They were Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a flock of probably at least 70 birds. They are very special birds, much sought-after by visitors and therefore always a pleasure to find and show to guests. They epitomise the open steppe-country for me. The wide expanse of the plains, just twenty minutes from our home, with its largely traditional mixed-farming rotation system, which allows the thin poor soil to rest for long periods is ideal for this species. They like either close sheep-cropped pasture or fallow rich in pioneer "weeds", as long as the vegetation is not too high- their short legs and necks mean that tall plants would curtail their visibility enormously. They are also quite faithful to parti…

Gems in rocky places

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During our supposed low season, I often do short pieces of work for the charity Save the Children, for whom I used to work full-time. This usually involves trips of about a week or so to give training and mentoring to teams of people managing programmes of work in different parts of the world. The last few weeks have seen me in South America, the Middle-East and South Africa. It is very different from life in Extremadura, keeps me in touch with former colleagues and gives me the chance to meet some wonderful and inspiring people making a real difference to children's lives. Of course as far as life and birdwatching in Extremadura is concerned there really is no such thing as a low season - there are always jobs to do in the garden and always great birds to see. During my brief stopovers here I have managed to pick olives for curing, cleared up old olive suckers for burning and started preparing the vegetable garden for the winter. The autumn is an exciting time for birding as the …

Autumn sunshine

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There is a real sense of the turn of the seasons at the moment. I had been away for two weeks and returned to find the days noticeably fresher. There had been some rain on the day I returned, but since then we have enjoyed several days of clear blue skies. Although there has not yet been enough rain to start to turn the plains green, a light purplish sheen betrays patches of Autumn Crocuses, whilst in the Monfragüe National Park the banks have the delightful Autumn Snowflake with spikes of Autumn Squill mixed with them. There are still lots of hirundines: dense flocks of House Martins feeding over the crags and Red-rumped Swallows in the garden. We also got three glimpses of White-rumped Swifts in the park. Taking my good friend Mark out on the plains we had superb views in excellent light of Great Bustards feeding nearby and each fence seemed to hold Whinchats and Northern Wheatears. The harvest is well underway on the rice fields and where the stubble is ploughed, hundreds of Black-…

Garden stepping stones

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We returned from a week's holiday in Galicia and the following morning I heard a rather rich, mellow song coming from deep in the foliage of an almond tree in the garden. It threw me for a moment, I could not place it. It was clearly a Sylvia warbler, but was not right for Blackcap, which is a common bird here, especially in the winter. I caught a glimpse of movement in the tree and then saw the bird. It was a Garden Warbler. I reflected that it was probably the first time in over fifteen years since I had heard their song, the first time since we left the UK, that is. They do not breed in our part of Spain and although I see them on passage every spring and autumn, this is the first time one has taken up temporary residence in the garden. "Of course" I said to myself, mentally kicking myself for not recognising the song straight away, especially since separating the rather similar songs of Blackcap and Garden Warbler was one of the tests my father frequently gave me whe…

Celebrating swifts

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Today is my first day back home after my annual trip to the UK for the British Birdwatching Fair. I sat with a cup of tea at the big granite table in front of the house, half an hour or so after dawn, watching against a clear blue sky a loose party of hirundines feeding quite low down. Chunky House Martins, slimmer Barn Swallows and the wonderfully attentuated Red-rumped Swallows. They wheeled and fluttered, swooped and darted. As I watched my gaze was then attracted to some quite different birds. Flying higher up and entering the arena with almost a detached disdain and purposeful collective glide was a feeding party of swifts, reminding me of the way a shoal of sharks might suddenly appear, dominate the scene and then drift off, silently, without almost a ripple as it were. They appeared to be mainly Common Swifts, probably birds already on migration attracted to the tiny invertebrates hundreds of metres above me. Within a few days this species will have left Extremadura en masse fo…

Summer swings into autumn

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Here in Extremadura there is the clear sensation that by mid-August the season is shifting from summer to autumn. The nights are a bit longer, it starts to feel a bit fresher at dawn and changes are afoot as far as the birds are concerned. Over the garden the Bee-eaters are in noisy flocks. As well as our local pair of pale-phase Booted Eagles, we are getting more sightings of juveniles and dark-phased birds..presumably starting to head south. There are now far fewer Black Kites around. Down on the rice fields, where the wader passage started several weeks ago, there was much less suitable habitat yesterday than on my previous visit. Open, fallow fields had dried up and were largely devoid of birds, whilst the rice in the paddies has grown much taller, making it much harder to see any birds feeding there. However, there were good numbers of Ruff (mainly juveniles), Wood Sandpipers and Green Sandpipers, as well as Common Snipe and Little Stint which had not been present on my visit in…

Garden butterflies

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Since moving in, little by little, we have been putting in flowering shrubs and other plants in the garden, trying to make it as attractive as possible for butterflies. Two Buddleia shrubs, as expected, have been superb with a throng some days of Cardinals, Common and Scarce Swallowtails, Clouded Yellows, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies. Our lavenders are thriving and are loved by bees and butterflies alike. Here is a photo of the gorgeous Marsh Fritillery on a lavender flower, taken by one of our regular guests, Peter Boardman. The delicate Long-tailed Blue is another common species in the garden, sometimes on the lavender or chasing each other high in the canopy of the trees beside the pool. The other photo shows the Two-tailed Pasha, the biggest of them all, perched on the hand of our son, Patrick a couple of days ago, when I returned from a two week trip abroad. The Two-tailed Pasha's larval food plant is the strawberry tree, a common native species here (and I have planted fi…

Waders moving through

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In my last blog I described hearing a Green Sandpiper over the garden in the middle of a warm night..this morning I visited my favourite spot in the nearby rice fields to see what waders were starting to appear. I left the house before dawn, seeing a Red-necked Nightjar settled on the road leading out of the village. I reached my destination just as the sun was rising, showering a golden light over the lush green paddies. Practically all of the fields are deep in growing rice and apart from White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets and a few Black-winged Stilt and Lapwing, it is hard to see very much amongst the crop. It is deceptive, because large flocks of Mallard with a few Teal flew up from these fields, where they had been feeding overnight, quite invisible. Much more productive would be the the few fields which for some reason had been left muddy with no crop. Open wet mud...ideal for waders. These indeed were thronging with birds...lots of Black-winged Stilts (I counted at lea…

Sleeping under the stars

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After our short holiday to see family in England, we are now back in Extremadura. It is the height of summer and the hottest time of the year. At the moment we are hitting daily maxima of 38 degrees Celsius and at night time it is staying around 26 degrees. Life is very different when it is like this. There is plenty of work to do, (although July is always very quiet as far as bookings are concerned) what with the garden and catching up with chores and maintenance of the house. The vegetable garden is having a great year and since returning from holiday, I have been busy picking and freezing dwarf beans and runner beans. It looks as if we will have a bumper crop of tomatoes, so each evening I need to tend and water them. However, any outdoor work needs careful planning and days here when it is hot follow a clear routine. Up with the sunrise (around 6 am) and try to get as much outdoor work done as possible before late morning. The dawn chorus is now reduced to the sound of our huge Ho…

Red-necked Nightjarring

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One evening, as our busy season is ending, no dinners to serve, no washing-up to do, so I slipped out just before dusk to walk ten minutes up the lane near the house. We can hear the Red-necked Nightjars calling from the house from mid-April, at dusk and at dawn and sometimes one will glide across the garden. But to get better views it is best to head for a quiet track between the olive groves, stopping at a point where one's view is reasonably unobstructed. There is something special about being out as night falls and the bats start appearing. As a boy, I would head to a local oak wood, stand at the edge and wait for the roding flight of the Woodcock, that extraordinarily cryptic wader that circles each territory at dusk uttering a series of grunts followed by a loud whip-crack of a call. Sometimes there would be the chance to go "nightjarring", which meant a drive to a forestry plantation to listen to the churring of European Nightjars and the occasional glimpse of thi…

Kaleidoscope of flowers and raptor rapture

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It had been a great day, the morning on the plains with good views of Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a bachelor group of 15 Great Bustards, Tawny Pipit, four species of lark and lots of Montagu's Harriers. At lunch we had watched a Little Bustard calling amidst a field of kaleidoscope colours of masses of wild flowers. Then, just as mid-afternoon approached, the temperature was edging upwards and what could very easily have been the quietest part of the day, we had what could only be described as fifteen minutes of sheer magnificence. We had stopped to take a walk, beside a field where hay was being baled. I spotted an immature Golden Eagle, quite low over the back of the field, apparently searching the cut hay for any prey. We watched it as it hunted, with the farmers working the machinery in the foreground. We then heard the barking of a Spanish Imperial Eagle and an immature flew swiftly in from the right, intent on chasing the Golden Eagle away. A pursuit ensued, the…

Meeting the challenge

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Sometimes people ask me to guide for a full week, which is great because it means that we can visit the full range of habitats at hand, revisit special sites and if we miss a species at one place, there will also be an opportunity of going to other places where I know the species occurs. Other people book me for a day, which usually means a short visit to the plains followed by Monfragüe National Park for raptors. Usually we find everything that we want, sometimes because of weather or simply the unpredictability of wild birds, we fail on one or two species...that's birding. I have just completed two day's guiding for Steve and Rochelle who came with some very specific requests: Black-winged Kite, Great Bustard, Collared Pratincole, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Roller, Golden Oriole and Eagle Owl. That was my challenge for last Sunday and yesterday (Tuesday)...on Monday they did their own thing.

Day One: Sandgrouse can be tricky so first thing…

Battling bustards

The last few days we have been helping as much as we can those guests who have been stranded by the unprecedented air travel closure, so I have had barely time to sit down to write up the blog. But I do want to share with you the fascinating and extraordinary sighting that a guest, Ralph Tiller and I had recently. We had stopped to look at a pair of Little Owls and as I scanned the area, I picked-up what I initially took to be a displaying male Great Bustard nearby. In the 'scope, it was clear that actually "it" was two males, face to face, a few centimetres apart, staring at each other. This face-off continued to the point when they started to fight. It was an aggressive bout, with one bird clasping the other's head with its bill. They tousled and pushed, one forcing the other towards a fence, then close to the ground. Feathers started to fly. Meanwhile, two or three females nonchalantly strode past. Eventually the fight finished with the males separating and headin…

Honeyguiding in Extremadura

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Every spring, in March, I help lead a holiday in Extremadura for the small tour company Honeyguide. It is run by Chris Durdin (ex-RSPB) and has a strong conservation ethic. Each year the holiday in Extremadura makes a donation to the Spanish Ornithological Society (this year over 900 euros) and similar support to given to local conservation bodies and projects in all of its destinations. The company has a very loyal client base (indeed all 14 of the members on this year's holiday had been on Honeyguide holidays before) and aims at those who have a broad interest in natural history, so ample time is given not just to birds, but also other animals and plants. We really explore to get a good idea of not just what is around, but also what makes it tick, understanding the landscape, visiting different habitats. Although botanically the spring has been slow, we found almost all of the plants we were hoping for, including six species of orchids and some wonderful specimens of Iberian Fr…

Spring comes rolling in

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I have just completed leading a thoroughly enjoyable and productive six day tour here in Extremadura and after three months of seemingly almost endless rain, the sunny days and blue skies were a blessing indeed. The landscape is emerald green now, with a haze of yellow crucifer, with clumps of wild narcissus. We did extremely well for birds, each day producing memorable highlights: my first Purple Heron of the spring, four Spoonbill flying in a line against a deep blue sky, no fewer than twenty species of birds of prey, a total of 75 Great Bustards and wonderfully close views of Little Bustard in a flower-rich meadow, fifteen species of wader (not bad for the interior of Spain in mid-March), both sandgrouse, no fewer than ten Great Spotted Cuckoo sightings in one morning, eye-level views of Alpine Swifts in the mountains, Pallid Swifts in late afternoon sunshine whilst we sat in the main square of Trujillo, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming near the house literally as we were leavi…

Urban Birding with the Urban Birder

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Mérida is the capital city of Extremadura with a very important Roman heritage. One of the most impressive features is the Roman bridge which spans the Guadiana river right in the centre of the city. As well as an extraordinary historic site, it can also be one of the best places for birding in Extremadura. I was there at dawn on Wednesday with David Lindo (aka the Urban Birder - see his website www.theurbanbirder.com) and his photographer Russell Spencer. David is a passionate advocate of the joys of urban birding, demonstrating what tremendous opportunities there are in towns and cities around the world. Most people live in cities and yet many overlook just what potential there is right on their doorsteps to watch birds and other wildlife. David is a great communicator and on top of that, an outstanding birder - I enjoyed every minute of the two days I had to show David and Russell some of the urban birding opportunities in Extremadura.

In just an hour on the Roman Bridge we had seen…

Winter Atlas top ten

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On Friday I completed the fieldwork for my allocated survey areas in eastern Extremadura for the Spanish Winter Bird Atlas. As I wrote in my blog of 22nd December, this has been a magnificent way over the last three winters to get know parts of the area that I had rarely visited before, or to explore beyond my regular routes in those patches which I know well. I used the internet to plan routes along little-used paths and tracks and then headed out for a good six hour hike (or slow walk actually) to record every individual of every species of bird detected in the course of 15 minute-long transects (whilst recording habitat type as well). Such were my atlasing days in the field.

The areas that I was assigned to cover included pretty much a good cross-section of the local landscapes: plains, open woodland, scrub, rice fields, olive groves and orchards, uplands and a couple of small water bodies. We will have to wait for the book to be published by SEO (the Spanish Ornithological Society…

Close encounter with Bonelli's Eagles

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It was half past one and I had been walking for four and half hours in a remote area of eastern Extremadura doing some fieldwork for the Winter Birds Atlas. I was in a quiet valley, quite wide, with scrub-covered slopes, some rocky outcrops and a strip of alder gallery woodland (full of Siskins) beside the river. This I thought to myself looks good eagle habitat. Just a few minutes later, I heard a loud whooooosh and an object whizzed past me at great speed just a few metres away and close to the ground. My first split-second reaction was that it was a hunting Goshawk, but as I got my binoculars on it, its true identity was obvious: a Bonelli's Eagle. It pounced onto a Red-legged Partridge on valley slope nearby. The partridge flew up, but then a second Bonelli's Eagle arrived, at the same speed as the first, and had a go at it. The eagles had appeared out of nowhere and had been completely oblivious of my presence, so focused were they on their prey. I was simply very close t…

Five days of brilliant birding

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Even by Extremadura standards, the last five days have been hard to beat in terms of sheer birding excellence. It has involved some very different approaches to the art: two days of Winter Atlas survey work meaning walking and recording the number of individuals of every species encountered, two days of guiding where success is measured by the "wow" factor from one's clients and a few hours on the fifth day of simple birding - in this case going through a flock of wintering geese.

The systematic atlas fieldwork yielded no fewer than eleven wintering Bluethroats in the space of an hour and a half, including some very smart males. There were interesting records of waders such as ten Curlew, 70 Avocet, 700+ Dunlin, raptors like Merlin, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier and fascinating totals like 98 different Chiffchaff seen on my walk through the rice fields. In the woodland, on a bitterly cold morning, the very first bird seen was a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, followed by a …

Murmurings of spring

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Although spring is not really deemed to have started until mid-February around here, there are the first clear signs of its forthcoming arrival. I did see some House Martins and Barn Swallows at the turn of the year, feeding alongside Crag Martins at the reservoir of Arrocampo, but these may have been overwintering individuals. But the Swallows that I have seen over the last few days, both over the garden as well as in nearby Trujillo are much more likely to be new arrivals. Our guests saw a Great Spotted Cuckoo yesterday, which is always one of the first species to return from Africa. In sheltered, sunny spots the first wild narcissus should be in flower and so should the almond trees (although the ones in our garden are always a little late). What clinched it for me happened last night. Patrick and I were looking at Mars through the telescope: very bright in the eastern sky. Whilst outside in the dark, we could hear the Nightjar-like churring of Natterjack Toads..how the evenings ch…

Rain galore but still some good birds

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Normally in mid-winter here we can expect some rain, but also long periods of settled fine weather which is a real joy to be out in - especially good for getting sightings of displaying eagles. This year however, we have had rain for almost every day over the last three weeks. I have just completed taking two guests, Peter and Vana, out birding for five days. We have had gale force winds, storms, torrential rain. Never before have I had to resort sitting in a steamed-up car to have lunch on one of these trips: we had to do it twice! Roads have been flooded, rivers are at full spate and the amount of standing water in the fields has been amazing.

For a guide under these conditions, one faces the prospects with some trepidation to say the least. Effective birding time is severely reduced and some birds will be very hard to find. Fortunately the local weather forecast was accurate enough for me to plan the itinerary to fit in with what the weather would throw at us: it is best to be in op…