Saturday, 22 October 2011

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 initially misidentifed as Little Swift (which also occurs there), although the two species are actually quite different in appearance. As you can see from the excellent photo by Raymond de Smet, it has a bold white throat, a rather narrow white rump and quite a slender tail, with the fork often held closed, so that the tail looks pointed. It is somewhat smaller than a Common Swift. It was first recorded in Extremadura in 1979. It nests in old Red-rumped Swallow nests, under overhangs on rock faces and sometimes bridges. Whilst a scarce and localised species, it is undoubtedly under-recorded. No one knows how many pairs breed in Extremadura, but we guess at least 50 pairs and probably over a hundred.

To see White-rumped Swift, you need to be looking anytime from late April to early May (they are the latest of our four breeding swift species to arrive here) in rocky gorges or steep river valleys, where there are Red-rumped Swallows. Carefully checking any swift you see, keeping it in view as it twists and turns, waiting to see if the white band on the rump shows. There are often feeding parties of Common Swifts in these sites, so more times than not the swift turns out to be the all dark Common. But the interesting thing about the White-rumped Swifts is that they stay much later here, well into the autumn, long after the Common Swifts have migrated. My encounter in the cave was on 19th October, and the latest date ever recorded in Extremadura is 29th October. So any swift seen in October in such habitat is very likely to be White-rumped (apart from the much larger and differently patterned Alpine Swifts, a few individiuals of which also linger on into October).

Just five minutes after the swift had flown out, in it whooshed again, closely followed by another. This time we were prepared and watched their trajectory. They had in fact flown directly (and amazingly rapidly) up into their nest, just above our heads. An old Red-rumped Swallow nest, it showed the diagnostic little white down feather at its entrance, which for some reason the swifts place there. What was extraordinary to watch was the way they entered such a narrow rocky entrance and then up to the nest: we could see how they folded their wings to squeeze at full speed through the narrowest of gaps. Realising we were so close to the nest, where they probably still had young, we withdraw from the scene as quickly as possible, leaving them in peace. I had never dreamed of ever being as close as this to one of our most enigmatic species.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

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 landscape scream summer, the garden birds are telling me autumn and winter. In the last blog I wrote about the autumn song of Robins. Now their song at dawn and dusk is accompanied by that of wintering Chiffchaffs whilst Black Redstarts (see John Hawkins´ photo) are taking up their winter territories. Yesterday and today I heard a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming from the top of dead branch just down the lane from the house, with another male drumming in response in the distance - signs again of ensuring that territories are identifed.

I also watched today a very brightly plumaged male Greenfinch having just completed its post-breeding moult. It was in spectacularly pristine condition, a really gorgeous bird with vivid yellow flashes on wings and tail and dove grey wings contrasting strongly with its mossy green body. It was gorging itself on cypress cones, a favourite food here in the garden in the winter for Hawfinches as well. As it was doing that, a Blackcap, a Chiffchaff and a Song Thrush were on the lawn below the tree, all of them winter visitors.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

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 garden is alive with butterflies. The impressive Cardinals fly around the nectar sources and glide across the garden as a whole, with an air of entitlement, almost proprietorial, whilst in a far more subdued fashion (until they start a spiralling dispute over food-patch) Long-tailed Blues and Lang's Short-tailed Blue. They are rather similar to each other, with the Long-tailed Blue showing, as you can see on my photo above, a more striped as opposed to blotchy underwing of Lang's Short-tailed (photo below).