Thursday, 28 January 2010

Five days of brilliant birding

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 singing Woodlark, followed by a Kingfisher! I kept bumping into Firecrests and later on I found a flock of 40 Cirl Bunting.

I was able to show some of the Bluethroats to our guest, Mark, as well on our first day together the huge flocks of Cranes and Grey Lag Geese. We saw a Great Spotted Cuckoo, a group of about 40 Little Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red-crested Pochard and copulating Black-winged Kites. The second day started wonderfully with a fine flock of thirty Great Bustard standing on the skyline of a field with the spectacular backdrop of the snow-clad Villuercas mountains and the castle of Trujillo. The area also yielded 70 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, another Great Spotted Cuckoo and two Merlin. We then headed to the Monfragüe National Park, seeing an overwintering Black Stork en route. At Monfragüe both Griffon and Black Vultures were finding weak thermals near the massive cliffs beside the River Tajo, we got great views of several Hawfinch and were joined at lunch by hungry, inquisitive Azure-winged Magpies. But pride of place must go the superb spectacle that we enjoyed in the winter sunshine, watching a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagle at close range, performing their aerial courtship, collecting nest material from the hillside and being mobbed by a pair of Ravens - until the tables were turned and the harried eagle divebombed the corvid! At one moment the pair were joined in the sky by a juvenile Imperial: three in sight at the same time.

Then today, for an hour or so I took myself down to the embanked pool at Casas del Hito, at the edge of the ricefields. The purpose of this was to try to find the Cackling Goose (also known as Richardson's Goose) which had been found earlier in the month and had been seen again last Sunday. It is the second record for Spain
and for me a lifer as well. Luckily a good number (about 500) Grey Lag Geese were swimming on the pool (there were also several thousand more feeding on adjacent rice stubble). I got myself into a good position to scan the flock and the light was perfect. After about ten minutes, I found this attractive small goose. Very distinctive, shorter-necked than a Canada Goose, with a steep forehead, and small dark bill. The cheek patch seemed to have a slight buffish wash, indeed the whole plumage had a warm tone. After having some excellent views of it, I continued to check through the geese and found three Greater White-fronted Geese, a rare visitor which had not been previously reported this winter. Pleased with both these sightings I started my return home, stopping to look at a group of waders on a paddy: four Wood Sandpiper, with a further six on the next field. They must be overwintering birds, I guess, and very unusual.

I cannot think of a more complete or more fulfilling collection of birding activities, really making the very best of our brilliant winter bird watching.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Murmurings of spring

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 the evenings change from the relative silence of mid-winter to the chorus of courting in the spring is such a landmark.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Rain galore but still some good birds

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 open-country (the steppes and ricefields) on the worst of the days, pick Monfragüe for raptors when there is a chance of some sunny spells, even if it will be very windy, and avoid woodland until the best day when the wind is low and it is not raining hard.

Overall it worked and even though we missed a few species, we did much better than I had expected. The good thing about guests from the UK is that they do not mind being out in the rain and we were all well kitted out. The highlights? Crane numbers at their mid-winter peak (we must have seen well over 10,000 in one day), the largest number of winter Grey Lag Geese that I can recall, three fine Ruddy Shelduck (origin unknown), good numbers of Little Bustard, groups of Great Bustard, big flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, excellent views of Bonelli's and Spanish Imperial Eagle, lots of Marsh and Hen Harriers, a stunning male Bluethroat, Purple Swamphen, masses of Lapwing and Golden Plover, some Curlew (which are very uncommon here), exquisite views of Firecrest, superb views of Black Wheatear, overwintering House Martin and Barn Swallow, two Otter sightings and, what is always a wonderful feature of wintering birding, the sheer numbers of small birds: Corn Bunting, Calandra Lark, Skylark, Chiffchaff, Spanish Sparrow. But for all of us what was probably the most memorable sighting occurred on New Year's Eve. There was a gale blowing and we had stopped at a small reservoir on the plains. A more exposed place you could hardly imagine. At the inlet of the reservoir there is a small patch of reedmace ("bulrush"), many with seed heads which were being tossed around in the wind. I heard the thin call of Penduline Tit, but assumed that under these conditions, anything more than a fleeting glimpse would be out of the question. It flew from close by and dropped into the vegetation. That's our view, I thought, but still checked the area carefully. Unbelievably, this remarkable little bird was relocated at the top of a swaying seed head, happily feeding away. What is more we got our telescopes onto it and were able to enjoy fabulous views. It then moved to another seed head, we found it again in the 'scopes amd then realised that on an adjacent plant there was a second Penduline Tit. They are great birds to see at the best of times, but under these conditions, these views are some which I will never forget.