Sunday, 24 October 2010

Gems in rocky places

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 migration continues and winter visitors start to arrive. There are now hundreds of Common Cranes already here and the sunny days are encouraging Woodlarks to sing over the garden, accompanying the autumnal song of our wintering Robins. Being away for much fo the time I have managed to miss some national rarities that have made an appearance here: Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. One wonders how many other North American species come through the area...there is a lot of suitable habitat and very few birders. The visiting birders who have stayed with us this month have had a rewarding time. Eagles are much harder to find at this time of the year, but otherwise most of the sought-after species have been seen. Tom and Greg Mabbett stayed a week in the middle of the month and were fortunate enough to come across a Wallcreeper in Monfragüe National Park See the attached photo of their's). These are gorgeous little birds, real gems with butterfly like wings revealing a beautiful crimson feathers. They nest in the Pyrenees and were considered to be extremely rare in Extremadura. However, in recent years in October there have been single records, suggesting that there is a passage through the area. Some may spend the winter here too. In 2008, I took a family to a peak high in the Villuercas mountains in early January, looking for Alpine Accentor. We sat on rocks overlooking a deep gully when suddenly a crimson and grey shape flew across. It showed itself again a few minutes later. My first Wallcreeper in Extremadura and at the time only the seventh record. It was one of those wonderful days when cloud covered the landscape below, whilst we sat in sunshine. Looking across the mattress of white cloud, one could pick-out in absolute claity other distant high peaks. The thought crossed my mind that all the Wallcreeper needed to do to reach here was to fly from one peak to another (island-hopping, as it were), all the way from the north. This Wallcreeper stayed at that site for two months, was seen by other birders and even makes a mention in Alan Davies and Ruth Miller's book The Biggest Twitch!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Autumn sunshine

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-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, along with Little and Cattle Egret feast on the stirred up sediment. Parties of waders are still coming through: Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Avocet.Just to mix things up even further, Red Avadavats are still nest-building. But what has been most pleasing has been the number of butterflies: in Monfragüe an impressive Two-tailed Pasha, whilst pristine Common Swallowtails seem almost everywhere. On the buddleia in the garden yesterday there were two Common Swallowtails and no fewer than eight Cardinals, paying no attention whatsoever to my proximity. One treasures these warm sunny autumn days..rain is forecast soon, the plains will turn green and it will not be long now before the skeins of cranes start arriving.