Saturday, 18 December 2010

Wonderful olives

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 the pole in a way that reduces damage - tapping, almost caressing the branches, so the olives fall by the vibration of the tapping rather than through brute force. We have a small olive grove too, and the annual harvest is a real highlight for us, a real social occasion (as indeed it is for many families here), with a picnic lunch and plenty of banter. There are also roving teams able to offer help and they work on the olive harvest right through the winter.

We use both the hand-picking and the pole methods, working a tree, collecting the olives that have fallen onto the net, taking them in a bucket to a sieve (see the attached photo taken by our son Patrick) to remove twigs and leaves and then pouring the fruit into sacks. This year, with the help of my sister and some local friends, we collected 14 sackfuls. These we took to an olive press where we receive the oil from our very own olives (there are also nearby cooperatives, where one can exchange olives for cash or oil). It is always exciting waiting to be told what the weight of the crop is (this year we harvested 457 kilos), then to watch the olives pass by conveyor belt to the press itself. Finally, a real sense of satisfaction to watch our own olive oil being poured into the five litre containers. We took home 69 litres of oil - enoughh for our annual consumption.

Some olives remain on the trees and there are plenty left on the ground. None are wasted. They represent a great energy source for birds in winter: Azure-winged Magpies (which store olives under leaves, like Jays store acorns), Hawfinches and winter visitors like Song Thrushes and Blackcaps. For the latter, oilves represent a key part of their winter diet and huge numbers spend the winter here from Central Europe. Indeed on gentle stroll along our lane for a couple of hours yesterday I saw or heard over 150 Blackcaps. Old olive trees with their gnarled trunks provide great foraging areas for Short-toed Treecreepers whilst every year a pair of Hoopoe nest in a cavity in one of our trees.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The storks return

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 their nests throughout the autumn. Our local birds do leave their nesting areas and their favoured spring feeding areas, the nearby plains, and congregrate at large rubbish tips or in the rice-growing area in central Extremadura where they seem to feed many on the exotic American crayfish. But by mid-winter they are back, the males arriving first to take occupancy of the nest (they usually return to the same nest)and often pairing up with the first female that shows an interest. The characteristic bill-clacking echoes across the square throughout the breeding season as birds use it to greet each other on return from feeding forays.

In Extremadura we have the highest density of breeding White Storks in Spain with over 11,000 pairs in 2004, a number which seems to be increasing each year. Not all nest on buildings, indeed there are as many pairs breeding in trees and near Cáceres there is even a colony nesting on top of large granite boulders.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Celebrating cranes

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 visitors out on walks and bus trips to see cranes and other local birds. The only challenge was the weather (Sunday was particularly wet and windy) because the birds themselves were magnificently obliging. Flocks of hundreds of cranes beside the road..several thousand at a roost, their forms taking shape as the sun rose in a stormy sky and their bugling reaching crescendo as they set off to feed, superb formations of cranes heading to roost against a backdrop of the mountains. We also saw several Black-winged Kites and watched Black-bellied Sandgrouse feeding close-by. On a midday excursion, we unfortunatley hit a very heavy rain storm just as we started to look for Great Bustard. Finding a large flock standing motionless in a field, we two guides set up our telescopes on tripods, opened an umbrella each and our group descended two at a time from the bus to peer at the bustards before going back inside and two others coming out. An almost surreal way to show people such emblematic birds, but it will stay in the memories of all of us for a long long time.