Wednesday, 24 November 2010

An exuberance of eagles

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 Eagle earlier in the day, but at our lunch spot we enjoyed watching a juvenile bird flying low across the terrain, its bright white wing flashes and base of tail contrasting strongly with its dark brown plumage. Just minutes later an adult Golden Eagle appeared, lacking the white markings and showing its diagnostic golden nape. It was not interested in the presence of the younger bird. Instead, it flapped upwards, gaining height until right over our heads. Then it did a somersault, so it was belly up and head down and then stooped in a great dive straight towards us. It then curved upwards again, the sheer momentum carrying it skywards to perform yet another somersault and dive. We were witnessing the Sky Dance of the Golden Eagle and this bird was truly performing with extraordinary exuberance. A third time it swooped up, flipped over and dived. We were mere onlookers (albeit ecstatic ones), this bird was performing for a different audience, its mate, which hung high in the sky, a stationary form. Not for the first time I reflected on how in contrast to our grounded two-dimensional perspective of the great dome of the sky, the eagles exploited and explored this space..they were truly in their element.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Scores of sandgrouse

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 particular areas. We found our first group of the day feeding at the top end of a field. Our second group we saw first in flight, almost Golden Plover-like, with rapid beats of rather long-pointed wings interspersed with characteristic long glides as the birds wheeled, turned, rose and descended. Typically this flock (numbering almost a hundred birds)stayed together at the beginning and then split up into twos and threes heading off in all directions. As they fly many were giving their characteristic gull-like call, which is far-carrying and a excellent way of locating their presence. The pin-tail (long central tail feathers) are hard to see on the ground, showing best when the bird is in flight. It is a gorgeously-coloured bird, with a rich orange breast and beautiful markings on the upperparts, as this picture by John Hawkins shows. The third group, also at least 70-strong, we found feeding on a grassy slope, close to the road at the end of the day, the winter afternoon light picking up the plumage gloriously. With a grand total of the day of perhaps about 250 sandgrouse, this must have been my best ever day for this species, especially with the prolonged and evocative views as we had enjoyed, a centrepiece for a really enjoyable day of winter birding in Extremadura.