Showing posts from 2011

Monfragüe's first visitors

Everybody who visits Extremadura with an interest in birds, and probably almost all visitors who come for other reasons too (be they cultural, gastronomic, landscape and so on) will visit the Monfragüe National Park at least once during their stay. This 18,000 hectare national park (declared as such in 2007, but previously a "natural park" since 1979) sits within a 100,000 hectare biosphere reserve and is one of the most important breeding areas for birds of prey in Europe. Indeed for the Black Vulture it has one of the largest breeding concentrations in the world with over 300 pairs. There is nowhere else where one can watch breeding vultures (three species), Black Stork, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Eagle Owl at such close quarters. Indeed so extraordinary can the views be, that local birders have nicknamed Monfragüe the "zoo". Tens of thousands of people come to Monfragüe every year specifically to watch birds and it is estimated that the total number of people w…

Dance Imperial

Sometimes the best comes last. It was a mid-November day with frontal systems bringing bands of overcast weather and gusts of wind, with brief breaks in the cloud with sunshine. It was just the day to be out in wide-open spaces, on the plains, under the vast dome of sky with its ever-changing tones, vast brushstrokes of whites, greys and blues. This was the sort of day when the big birds of prey, like the vultures, could drift across a whole field of view, with barely a flap, cruising rather than soaring. A few skeins of cranes and geese were moving southwest. On the plains themselves we found parties of Great and Little Bustard and a flock of over a hundred Pin-tailed Sandgrouse busy feeding on a short sward of fresh autmun grass.

We left the vehicle and walked east along an ancient drovers' trail, a Cañada Real, established by Royal (= "Real") decree early in Medieval times. For centuries these were the routes taken by the drovers and their herds of cattle or flocks of…

Cranes and Quinces

It is as if by magic and although it happens every year, it always amazes and surprises. A week ago the landscape was parched yellow, then we had two days of (very belated) rain and the temperatures dropped to the more seasonal low twenties. There has been an utter transformation with the pastures and plains turning emerald green. Looking closely at the ground, every square centimetre is filling with sprouting grass shoots and germinating seedlings. Out on the plains, there are thousands of the delightfully named ephmeral Autumn Snowflake: a tiny snowdrop-like flower on the most slender of reddish-brown stalks, along with the delicate white Narcissus serotinus, a widespread autumn-flowering bulb of understated beauty: six rather narrow white petals with an orange-yellow cup. Despite being early November, a few butterflies are still on the wing: Clouded Yellows, Red Admirals, whilst the Long-tailed Blues and Lang's Short-tailed Blues persist on the Daphne growing in our garden.


White-rumped Swifts

I had walked past that tiny cave dozens of times, but that morning with some visitors, I ventured into its mouth. Perhaps there would be some bats and certainly the view across the dehesa woodland pasture was superb. The ground was still parched dusty-yellow, contrasting with the dark green forms of the holm oaks. We stood just inside the entrance and took in the scenery. Suddenly whoooosh! I was aware just of quite a large animal flying past our heads (we could feel the air move) and seemingly disappearing ahead of us. A split-second impression. Was it a bat? Well, it seemed a bit too big and I was sure that I had seen a flash of white. A minute or so later, it swept out again, also just a few centimetres from our heads and this time, although the view was almost as brief, it was obvious that it was a White-rumped Swift.

This is quite a mystery species. Its home is Africa, where it is widespread and common. It was first recorded in Spain in Cadiz province in the late 1960s and was i…

Autumn drought

It is now mid-October, but it still feels almost like summer. The temperature is only now starting to edge its way slowly down from daytime maxima of 30 degrees and we have had no rain to speak of (apart from a few showers at the start of September) since June. People are starting to get worried. By now autumn rains should have started, the landscape should have started turning green. Our olive trees are laden with fruit, but the olives are small and are getting wrinkled. If there is not rain over the next few weeks, they will not fatten up and many will fall prematurely. The prospect for the winter olive harvest is not looking good. In my vegetable garden we still have tomatoes, melons and courgettes, but the winter cabbages are disappearing (I think by a mouse which literally pulls them downwards from its burrow) - one day the plant is there, the next day it is gone, with just a little hole showing where the stem had been.

The weird thing is that even though the weather and landsca…

Robins return and autumn butterflies

There is no more sure sign of autumn here that hearing the liquid song of a Robin breaking into the first glimmers of light at dawn. The last few days of September or start of October is when I will hear this for the first time as a newly arrived Robin establishes its winter territory in the garden. Our Robins are winter visitors, turning up at the start of autumn and staying with us until March. When they are here they seem as fully part of the garden birdlife as our resident species, and as winter visitors they are very common across Extremadura, in gardens, woodland and olive groves.I love to hear their ticking call from the shady undergrowth and their evocative autumn song on a still dawn when there just a glow of red showing over the mountain of Pedro Gómez, 1100 metres high just a few kilometres to the east of us, brings a deep sense of nostalgia.

So we have this fascinating re-arrangement of species at the moment as the seasons change. The weather remains hot and dry, and the …

Changes on the rice fields

What a difference a few weeks can make! I spent several hours at the start of the month driving around through areas of rice production and frankly not seeing very much in the way of birds. The crop had not been harvested, although it was starting to turn yellow, so the paddies were densely covered by rice, making it very hard for anything other than White Storks and egrets to reach the water and find delicacies such as crayfish and frogs. Over the past few days however, I have been back. In some of the areas over 50% of the crop has been harvested and the big combines with their caterpillar tracks will be harvesting the rest right through October and even into early November.

Extremadura is one of the top rice-producing areas in Spain and the area of rice production has increased significantly since the 1970s. Far from the coast and with low rainfall (although average rainfall in Extremadura is higher than eastern England), intuitively it does not appear to be the most logical plac…

September surprises

September is always a fascinating month with the equinox, the change of season. The month started with some deceptively cool and wet weather but soon reverted to the final blast of summer with very hot and sunny conditions. Now in its final days, the month is slowly recalibrating to autumn - the sky is still a brilliant blue, but there is a refreshing chill at dawn, the nights are getting longer. The changes are marked by the wildlife as well, a month that starts with the skies full of Bee-eaters. As their arrival in spring, so their departure, the Bee-eaters seem to get higher and higher, just passing over, eventually revealing their presence just by their whistled "prrruit", like old-fashioned referee's whistles. It is a time too for surprises, as one never knows what migration wil bring.

Just this week, two Belgium birders staying with us had the amazing good fortune to be at the right place at the right time. Standing out on the nearby Belén plains early in the morn…

Look up

The start of September and the season is turning. Although it is still hot during the day, the dew lies thick on the lawn at dawn and there is a freshness to the sky. The epitome of passage here, a Willow Warbler, is busy feeding in the shrubs. It is a time for late summer chores and for a few hours each morning this week, I have been chopping off the tall shoots that have grown at the base of the olive trees. This leaves the base of the trunk nice and clean which makes laying down the net for harvesting the olives during the winter a much easier endeavour. It probably also ensures that tree pushes its resources into the olives themselves, or so folk will say. They are certainly fattening up, helped a lot by a couple of heavy rain storms late last week. As far as birding is concerned, this is the time for passage migrants and in many respects I may as well be spending the time in the garden as any where else. Indeed, I spent a fruitless morning last week in the rice growing area, loo…

Extremadura in the British Birdfair

We are over in England at the moment and last weekend took part in the team of colleagues from Extremadura to promote the region on the Extremadura stand at the British Birdfair in Rutland. For those of you who have never been to the Birdfair, it has been likened to a Glastonbury Festival for birders. Indeed, a friend Peter Dunne from New Jersey Audubon Society told me at Rutland, that after revisiting the Birdfair after a ten year absence he was struck how it had changed from being like a trade fair, to becoming a real Festival (or fair in the traditional sense of the word). Yes certainly business is done, contacts are made, books are launched and products are bought, but key to its success is that people have a great time, it is a really enjoyable gathering. As well as the hundreds of stands of exhibitors promoting great birding destinations, equipment, artwork, photos, local and international charities, there are lectures and events, celebrity happenings and activities for childre…

Nightingale repertoire and summer fiestas

It is the height of summer here. It has not rained for weeks and although this month has so far been a lot fresher than is normal for July, the temperature in the afternoon is still getting above 30 degrees. It is the time for taking things at a slower pace and indeed everyone and everything seems to be following suit. There is a silence across the towns and villages in the afternoon as people stay indoors and enjoy a siesta. Swallows and House Martins sunbathe on the south-facing ledge of our house, adopting extraordinary postures with wings held up and heads tilted. They are only disturbed by a passing Booted Eagle, which causes them to get airbourne and start mobbing the raptor. The only sound comes from the greenery in the garden, where thanks to watering, there is damp soil in the shrubby shade. From the shadows come distinctive but very different sounds - a croak which sounds as if it must come from a frog (and we do have plenty of those) and a squeak which must be from a rusty…

Bouncing bustards

It was late May and I was taking our guests KY Shum and his partner Cathy Chan from Hong Kong into the field for their last morning in Extremadura. KY had sent me in advance a list of species that they were particularly interested in photographing. One of them was the Little Bustard. I knew of a place about twenty minutes from home where a male Little Bustard was regularly coming out onto a track to display. If we were there at first light, KY should be able to get some pictures. As we approached the track in my vehicle there was no sign of the bird. We stopped and I carefully checked the area. Almost immediately I found it, not on the track but close by in the yellow-dry steppe grasses. KY carefully got out of the vehicle and stood behind the gate at the entrance of the track, with the car behind him, so his outline was invisible. It was perfect early morning light and no sign of heat shimmer. As we watched, the Little Bustard threw its head back as it called, delivering a rather f…

Of butterflies and birds

Last August I posted a blog about butterflies in the garden. Earlier this year some good friends of ours Peter and Jan Farrbridge got in touch to suggest coming to spend a week with us in early June, for some birding of course, but with also with a special focus on butterflies. I was very enthusiastic about the idea. It would be new for us and a great challenge to come up with a suitable itinerary to take into account the likelihood of high temperatures, but the need to spend as much time as possible on foot. As with a bird tour, generally speaking the greater the diversity of habitats visited, so the number of species of butterflies seen should be greater. Given that Peter and Jan also wanted to see as many as possible of most sought-after birds as well, I looked at routes that would focus on birds first thing in the morning (with a specially early start for the bustards and sandgrouse of the steppes - even a couple of hours after sunrise, the heat haze would make viewing very diffi…

Thickbills in the thistles

This is one of my favourite times of the year to be in garden. And one of the reasons for this is that one of my favourite birds are very easy to watch here at the moment. It is the Hawfinch or Picogordo in Spanish which translates as stout or thick bill. Over the years here I have almost worked out the annual cycle of our local Hawfinches. I know that in the winter they will come to feed on ripe olives, on the fruit of cypresses and I have even seen one pick up an unshelled almond. In late winter we often see a male singing from the bare tree in front of the house. In March the place to find them is where there are Southern elm trees. They feast on the mast. There is a clump opposite the church just down the lane. And then they disappear. During most of April and May they can be hard to find - a fleeting glimpse of a bird in flight here, another disappearing across a wooded valley there. The reason is that they become very secretive during the breeding season. They must be breeding …

The allure of the Black Wheatear

It is a funny old spring here...after weeks of hot dry weather, most of the last three weeks have been wet. The landscape that was starting to turn yellow has been reinvigourated almost beyond belief, with grass shooting up, which makes finding Little Bustards quite a challenge. The late spring flowers are putting on a grand show - yesterday Claudia and I came across a meadow near us with a dark pink hue thanks to hundreds of wild gladioli. After most of the last few weeks in the field with guests, I dodged the showers of the last few days to put the vegetable garden back in order, discovering the rows of onions, garlic and beans amongst the rampant vegetation of my neglected plot. Tomorrow I head to Madrid to pick up two more guests coming for a week's birding holiday here. It does not matter how many times I have collected clients at the airport, the sense of trepidation remains. What will their expectations be? What is their preferred pace? What do they particularly want to se…

Moments with migrants

Throughout more or less the whole of the first part of spring I have been sharing my enjoyment of the birds and other wildlife in Extremadura with guests who I have taken out into the field. Almost the whole time, the sun has been shining and the temperatures have been more like May than early spring. Just this week, we are being rained on (the land needs it desperately) and this break in the weather has matched exactly a few days to be based at home. It is a great opportunity to take stock of the season so far. Most of the summer migrants have arrived on cue and the rest somewhat earlier than usual. Observers in many countries are recording arrival dates of migrant birds and these are showing a trend for some species to be arriving a little earlier each year. The same is true in Spain. This year's big surprise in this respect were the Red-necked Nighjars, which were first heard in our village on 10th April, a good week or so before I usually hear them from home. Melodious Warble…

More orchids

Since my last post, I have been spending practically everyday in the field and I will do a post later on some of the spring birds we have seen. It has been an odd spring with over three weeks with hardly any rain and above average temperatures (it has just started to rain again today). But I just want to follow-up on the theme of my last blog on orchids with the unfolding story of orchid spring in Extremadura. Just a few days after that blog (written in late March) I was back at the site I described. This time, the Woodcock Orchids (Ophrys scolopax)which I had failed to find in March, were abundant and what a gorgeous and varied species it is.

We also found Dark Ophrys (Ophrys incubacea).

As April progresses, so the first flush of the early spring orchids fade (although the verges near our house still have Champagne orchids in flower). Interest then turns to the species characteristic of late spring. Locally, these are predominantly the tongue orchids or Serapias. We visited a great a…

Orchid spring

Extremadura is world famous as a destination for birders and each spring people come from many countries to visit Monfragüe National Park to enjoy the spectacle of vultures, eagles and Black Storks, as well as going to the plains near Trujillo and Cáceres for Great and Little Bustards, sandgrouse and other open country specialities. Most also visit the reservoir of Arrocampo near the town of Almaraz to see Purple Heron, Purple Swamphen, Little Bittern and other wetland species. Not many realise that just a few minutes from the reservoir is one of the best orchid areas in the province of Cáceres: the Cerro de Almaraz. We went there last Sunday, grabbing a couple of hours of quality family time during our peak season for guests. There is an orchid trail, taking one through a landscape of olive groves on a chunk of limestone, an unusual bedrock in the province. Hence the orchids. The first impression are the hundreds and hundreds of spikes of the Naked Man Orchid (Orchis italica), domina…

Larks and daffodils

Throughout early spring there really is no better place to be than out on the plains of Extremadura. The mosaic of traditional rotation low intensity farming provides a long list of attractions. The obvious may be the lekking Great Bustards or displaying Montagu's Harriers, but the more understated can be just as memorable. Throughout February and most of March the early spring flowers start adding a delicate set of colours to the landscape, just before the exuberance of the artist's palate that is April. Sand crocuses and the gorgeous Barbary Nut Iris, for which you need to be out in the afternoon to see at its best, as the flowers remain resolutely closed in the morning. Searching carefully one can find Sawfly Orchids as well. One of my favourites are the wild daffodils, or really narcissi. The first is the pale yellow Angel Tear's, a wonderful name befitting its drooping, nodding tear-shaped flower (Edited comment: Brians Banks has just sent me this: In 1888 a British …

Amazing optics

My eye caught a movement in the semi-darkness. I could just make out in the dusk that something had landed at the base of a bush, halfway up the cliffside. As I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, my assumption was immediately confirmed. Thanks to an image brighter than my own eyesight and with the magnification offered, I had found the bird that we had been waiting for. Although well past sunset, its shape and cryptic plumage was readily visible. Straightaway I called out "Eagle Owl" and the rest of the group followed my directions to find it. Normally when one considers binoculars for very low-light conditions one looks for as low a magnification as possible, generally seven times (7x). However, the binoculars I was handling were 12x. Now if you ask most experienced birdwatchers what they think of 12x binoculars, hands raise in horror at memories of massive pieces of equipment, barely possible to raise to one's eyes, let alone keep steady, purchased by ill-advised novic…

Unashamedly anthropomorphic

Sometimes it is impossible to resist being anthropomorphic...describing animal behaviour in terms of human attitudes and motives. Two incidents last week on the same day, at the same place (indeed minutes of each other) prompted such a lapse! I was with a group of four people, David and Kath from the north of England and Liz and Brian from Wales and we were at the wonderful Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint in the Monfragüe National Park. It is the sort of place where one can easily spend hours, just waiting for birds to arrive, enjoying the magnificent scenery and other wildlife. Angel Tear's Narcissus was coming out into flower near where we stood and an Eagle Owl sat incubating her eggs. We spotted an Otter swimming to a rocky bay with a catfish in its mouth and watched as it clambered up onto a rock to eat it. Then it swam out again to catch another. This caught the attention of a Grey Heron which flew in to stand beside the bay. The Otter returned to the bay and ate its fish whil…

Winter gatherings

Spring-like weather last week has given way to bitingly cold easterly winds. Despite there being clumps of wild narcissus in flower in sheltered places and some almond blossom, we are still in winter here. Despite the arrival of House Martins and some Swallows, and even a Great Bustard starting some tentative paces in its courtship display, the birds too still have a winter feel about them. Hard weather in central Europe has brought an invasion of Goosanders to Spain and two have even reached Extremadura, for the first time ever. I saw a female swimming on the river running through the Monfragüe National Park last Sunday. But the most striking feature of birds in winter are the sheer numbers. Yesterday we watched a big flock of two or three hundred Corn Bunting rising from a stubble field as a male Merlin attacked. It had arrived almost un-noticed, mimicking a Mistle Thrush with a low gliding flight interspersed with rapid flaps. Then it accerated and dashed through the rising bunting…

Le grand duc

There is something magnificently apt in the French name for the Eagle Owl - the Grand Duke - an aristocratic aloofness, mystery and power. I certainly sensed this yesterday evening, in the dusk after sunset, in a perfect still calm with the moon and Jupiter starting to shine above me. The first bats had emerged and the last vultures had reached their roost. There was silence. Then, almost inaudible, a muffled "oohu". The next call was louder, more resonent, appearing to come from the dark rocky massif in front of me, the gorge creating a perfect acoustic arena. Then another call, quickly followed by another. Clearly I was now listening to two birds calling to each other. Instinct told me to scan the top of the cliff, where the sharp crisp boundary between the dark rock and the evening sky was visible. And there it was, close to the highest point of all, a new shape that had not been there a few minutes earlier: a large body, rounded head and long "ear-tufts" someti…