Sunday, 24 July 2011

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 bicycle but it is coming from the opposite direction to the lane. There they go again and a slight movement betrays the creature responsible (and indeed, the two sounds come from the same source). A flicker, a tail cocked-up and then showing rufous as it flies into even deeper shadows. It is a Nightingale. And just to prove it there is the briefest snatch of sound which recalls the full, liquid notes of its song. I am happy to say that Nightingales are common here and by the beginning of April I expect to hear the first Nightingales singing in the village as I get up before sun rise. We have them in the garden, sometimes singing right next to the house. Last year one sang under our bedroom window for most of the night. Now they have stopped full song and finished breeding. We have an adult and a juvenile spending their post-breeding period in the garden close to the house. They lurk in the shadows, only coming out to hop on the lawn at first light or chase sparrows away from favourite feeding areas. There are also juvenile Blue Tits, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Hawfinches around, whilst our two pairs of Barn Swallows have successfully reared their young (one already with two broods completed). This year for the first time a pair of Moorhen appeared on our pond (which is not much bigger than our kitchen). They remained amazingly elusive, keeping under the cover of the bramble and quince bankside vegetation, with only the occasional call note revealing their presence. However, my suspicions were confirmed a couple of days ago when I caught glimpses of two chicks that they had stayed to breed here.

One by one over the summer, the towns and villages here will be celebrating their fiestas. Our hamlet (Pago de San Clemente) is one of the first with the Fiestas de San Juan in late June. This year the party lasted two nights with music and dancing until dawn, with the village then getting together in the shade of trees infront of the church to have a charity auction of local produce. The cheeses, hams, chorizos, tortillas and wine that people bid for are then shared by all, creating a wonderful event that brings all together to enjoy the typical delicacies of the area.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

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 far-carrying sound, like someone blowing a raspberry. Its intention was to attract females with this show. As if rude sounds were not enough, it then jumped up into the air, like a bounce really. As it did its striking black and white neck feathers were erected, giving it almost a cobra-like hood and the largely white flight feathers also added to the visual impact. KY got his photo - a wonderful study of Little Bustard in full display.

Despite the tall vegetation, late spring is one of the best times of the year to see Little Bustards. This is because from late April to mid-May, males are at the apex of their display period and they want to be as highly visible as possible in order to be found and chosen by the highly selective females. They grow their boldly patterned neck plumage, stand on mounds, boulders or anywhere that will enable their heads and necks to stick up above the level of the tall grasses. They call almost incessantly in the morning and the evening. If one stands in good Little Bustard areas one can hear three of four calling at one time and with careful scanning usually find them as well. They will do their bounce, as KY's photo shows and males will also chase each other in a wide circling flight, their wings making a whistling sound, which gives them their Spanish name "Sisón". The females lack the bold neck pattern and can be seen if one carefully checks the vicinity, slowly approaching a favoured male.

The other excellent time to see Little Bustards is in the winter when they form flocks, sometimes of several hundred strong. They prefer to be in fields where there is tall dry vegetation such as dead thistles or stubble and can often be quite well concealed. However, the low morning or evening sunlight will catch the white underparts to reveal the birds' presence.

Sadly, the Little Bustard is in trouble. Over half of the Iberian population occurs in Extremadura and neighbouring Castille La Mancha, more than half of the global population occurs in the peninsular. However, surveys carried out in Extremadura suggest a decline of 75% in just eleven years, and overall across Spain the decline is thought to be about 30% (De Juana, E., 2009 Ardeola 56:119-125). The overall negative trend is probably due to gradual changes in land-use and agricultural practice, but why the decline would be more marked in Extremadura, no one knows. After all, here in many of the steppe areas the land-use practice is still quite traditional, with a slow rotation system, low intensity land-use and mixed farming. The results of the survey match many anecdotal observations of those who have been birding in Extremadura for twenty or more years. It goes to show how important these regular surveys are, but they also need to be followed-up quickly with more in-depth studies of factors that may influence population trends. A morning on the plains in late spring without hearing the Little Bustard call or watching it "bounce" would be unimagineable.

For more of KY's photos go to

Saturday, 2 July 2011

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 difficult) and then shift to butterflies by late morning and for the afternoon. I included four areas of higher altitude habitats, partly to escape the heat and also because these would be particularly productive for butterflies as well at this time of the year (actually they were great for birds too like Honey Buzzards, Bonelli's Eagles, Red-billed Choughs, Ortolan Buntings and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers to name but a few). Peter and Jan also wanted the pace to be as relaxed as possible - they were on holiday after all(!), so we took it easy. We had no particular target in mind, but by the end of the week we had seen 46 species of butterfly. We were delighted! However, as always, it is not the numbers that count, rather the special experiences that will fix in the memory. Let me relate two. We spent a full day at the highest point of the Villuercas Mountains (at 1600 metres).

Within minutes we were watching Glanville (photo above), Marsh and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, as well as Sooty and Purple-shot Coppers (photo below), attractd to patches of French Lavander, which at this altitude was still in flower.

As we proceeded down the road, we chanced upon patches of brambles in flower. Here we could simply stand and be bowled-over by the profusion of butterflies, such as Cardinals and the gorgeous Southern White Admiral (see photo at top of page) and Iberian Marbled White (see below).

We had lunch beside a small grassy clearing. Here the bizarre Owlfly (Order Neuroptera) which buzzed around in their predatory manner like little flying robots. During that day we had barely travelled more than a couple of kilometres along this little road and had seen no fewer than 24 species of Butterfly. Another special memory comes from our visit to the Honduras Pass (again about 1500 metres above sea-level) above the Jerte Valley in the Gredos mountains.

High Brown Fritillaries were in profusion (see photo above)and we also found species such as Rozy-Grizzled Skipper, but constantly in the background we could hear nothing else apart from the rather plaintive, but enchanting song of Ortolan Buntings (photo below). And as we stood straight after stooping to look at butterflies, we could simply take in the glorious mountain scenary.