Sunday, 28 March 2010

Honeyguiding in Extremadura

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 Fritillary. The generally wet and windy weather made the butterfly list a short one, but we did get excellent views of the Nettle-Tree Butterfly in Monfragüe. We did well on birds with all of the expected migrants in for the date such as Subalpine Warblers, and still some unexpected winter birds like a late flock of 150 Common Crane. In the two of three days since the group returned home, better weather has brought a big flow of migrants: my first Rollers, Bee-eaters and Black-eared Wheatears of the spring for example.

Today, being Palm Sunday, the village gathered at the church, under clear blue skies and warm temperatures, with Bee-eaters calling high over head and the storks on the church belfry looking on. Everyone had brought, instead of palm fronds, bunches of olive branches and rosemary sprigs. It was a moving communal event, firmly based around the typical plants important to the life of the village.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Spring comes rolling in

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 leaving for the airport, Calandra Larks rising in groups to sing over the plains, a Bluethroat standing tail-cocked beside a ditch in the rice fields, a Penduline Tit singing on a willow tree. Still present were groups of winter birds (Common Crane and Grey Lag Goose) but also a real sense of spring migration underway: groups of Red and Black Kite drifting north, an Osprey arriving to feed in front of us. It was the combination of great company from our guests, amazingly good birding plus the glorious weather that made this trip such a memorable one.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Urban Birding with the Urban Birder

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 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 Purple Swamphen, Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little and Cattle Egrets, Penduline Tit, Spanish Sparrow, Alpine and Pallid Swifts, as well as great views of Cetti's Warbler, amongst others. An impressive host of species for any site, but here we were in the centre of the city, with people passing by all the time on their way to work. We also visited Cáceres and Trujillo to watch White Storks and Lesser Kestrels: towns that are on the ornithological map and holding international status for their conservation value.

We sneaked a quick visit to areas close by as well: hearing the first Common Cuckoo of the spring, watching a male Great Bustard in practice for the courtship season, seeing a juvenile Golden Eagle mobbing Griffon Vultures and bidding farewell to some of the last Common Cranes of the winter as they flew in a skein high above.