Friday, 30 September 2011

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 place for such a crop. However, thanks to a massive infrastructure of reservoirs (even though it is land-locked, Extremadura has more "coastline" than other region of Spain - because of the numerous artificial water bodies, as well as large rivers crossing the territory), canels and pipelines, water is moved from storage onto the flat valleys of the Guadiana river and its tributaries in central Extremadura. When conditions have been favourable for the rice-producers and subsidies available, paddies have even been built on terraces, rising on slopes to encroach what was steppe country or dehesa woodland.

It is a classic dilemma for the conservationist. Certainly areas of habitat supporting communities of very special animals and plants have been lost under this intensive agriculture. However, the ricefields have created a new wetland habitat in Extremadura which not only has added considerably to biological diversity, it is now considered to be of international conservation importance. The wet paddies provide wonderful habitat for migrating waders - they are an important stopover for birds like Black-tailed Godwit, as well as being used by tens of thousands of wintering Common Crane and waterfowl.

The farming operations underway at the moment are creating, inadvertedly, the right conditions for these birds. Many of the paddies are left as stubble after harvest. These are the fields where the cranes, geese and duck will be feeding in a few weeks time. Other fields are quickly "ploughed" by tractors using iron frames instead of back wheels. Hundreds of gulls and egrets follow the plough, and indeed today I saw dozens of Yellow Wagtails doing the same. These are the fields that will be visited by waders, through autumn, winter and early spring. In one field I watched today there were over 95 Common Snipe and about 50 Spotted Redshank, as well as small numbers of other waders. The same field two days ago had over 120 Ruff. Overall in two fields I found 16 species of wader, including small parties of Little Stint busy feeding together in glorious autumn sunshine. The ditches between the paddies are superb for wintering Bluethroats. Overall it is one of the best areas to enjoy a winter's birding anywhere in Europe.

The irony now is that there is concern from some conservationists over the possibility that rice production might decline as a result of changes in European agricultural policy. The rice fields in Extremadura are productive both in terms of growing food, as well as creating a habitat which is being exploited by different birds throughout the year. I would not necessarily wish any more dry open country or woodland to be converted to irrigated and flooded land, but I do hope efforts are made to maintain what we have.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

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 morning, whilst looking for Great Bustards, they saw an odd-looking bird fly over. Equipped with a fine camera and lens, Raymond De Smet had presence of mind to take a series of photos as the bird passed. One of them is at the top of this posting - it shows a Cream-coloured Courser, a desert species from North Africa and only the second time ever it had been seen in Extremadura (there was one seen twenty years ago). They didn't manage to see where it landed because at that moment they were distracted by a Wild Boar which approached closely. That in itself would have been a highlight of the day!

The following morning, and the morning after that, I too was out on the Belén Plains, with Kevin and Catherine from North Wales. The Cream-coloured Courser is a sandy-coloured bird, which more or less describes the colour at the moment of kilometres and kilometres of suitable habitat on the open plains about a needle in a haystack! Well we never refound the Courser (it may well have left the area completely by the time we were there)and nor did others out looking for it as well, but it was really special to be out on the plains at first light, watching Stone Curlew, Great Bustards, my first Hen Harrier of the autumn and on the second morning three of our rather grey-looking foxes (see John Hawkin's photo here)romping around at play.

Still there are other surprises. Earlier in the month, I was out at dawn on the plains and from the car settled down to watch three Great Bustards close by. As I watched I saw something I had never seen before. Two of the bustards were juveniles, albeit practically fully grown. The adult bird, a female was pecking at the top of dead thistles. It picked off an item of food (perhaps an insect or a thistle seed) and immediately one of the younger birds ran up and pecked the food from its mother's bill. The adult found another item of food, held her bill still and again the juvenile came forward to take it. I had always assumed that bustard chicks, being precocious (like chickens) find food for themselves as soon as they hatch, and indeed according to the literature they do, although the hen will sometimes pick up food for them when they are small. What surprised me was that such large juveniles were still receiving from the adult. It just demonstrated that you never know when you will seen something new and unexpected, it is a question of observation and curiousity. It may have lacked the excitment of a rarity like the Courser, but there was a thrill at witnessing something new, another insight into the life and behaviour of such emblematic birds.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

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, looking for muddy fields which would attract waders, but all had dense rice crops, maize or tomatoes. Even a pool which usually has been a wonderful spot in September was almost dry this year. My compensation was seeing dozens of Lesser Kestrels on the wires crossing the open plains - perhaps some were local birds, but I suspect that many had come from further afield.

No, the garden is the place to be...looking up between olive trees I watched two Black Stork circling above whilst minutes later a fine adult Egyptian Vulture drifted over, followed shortly afterwards by another. I have seen a female Montagu's Harrier and sometimes there have been three Booted Eagles and a couple of Short-toed Eagles in the sky together. Like the Lesser Kestrels, are they local birds or passage migrants? Noisy parties of Bee-eaters are also passing over, as are groups of Alpine Swift. It is a fascinating time of year. I have just finished reading David Lindo's book on the Urban Birder, where he shares the advice to look-up - whether in town or country, or in my case this week the garden..otherwise you have no idea what you are missing!