Monday, 14 November 2011

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 sheep, like nomadic pastorists bringing their animals off the northern mountains in the autumn, following the landscape as it became green after the October rains to grazing pastures to the south. They retraced their steps in the spring: thousands of animals moving along these strips of common land. This transhumance has almost died out and most of the movement is today by truck, but the trails remain as ribbons of public land, now marked with little granite posts bearing the initials VP ("Via Pecuaria" or Livestock trail). They give wonderful access across plains and into dehesa woodland and it was along one of these we spent the afternoon.

We headed initially across mixed farming land, rough pastures and cereals, but quickly the landscape because dominated by lavander with scattered bushy holm oaks. It was superb open terrain and looked excellent for eagles, indeed as we walked we flushed a couple of Iberian Hares, a much-favoured prey species of Golden Eagle here. However, by now we were being grazed by a belt of heavy rain, which although staying mercifully just to our west, made the sky damp and gloomy - certainly not good eagle weather. The breeze eventually carried the heavy shower onwards and away and gradually a few Griffon Vultures started to rise in the sky. I caught a glimpse of an eagle flying low, perhaps a couple of kilometres away, but soon it was gone. Shafts of late afternoon sunlight penetrated the thick cloud and a rainbow appeared over the path ahead. At that moment I heard a barking call, somewhat higher in tone than a Raven - unmistakeably the sound of a Spanish Imperial Eagle announcing its arrival. It quickly moved on stage, wings held close to its body, and then swooped upwards getting higher and higher, before turning to stoop downwards. This it repeated as its mate arrived from the same direction and we witnessed the sheer joy of the pair sky-dancing, rising and falling in magnificent loops, with sunlight catching their brilliant white leading edges to their wings, with sometimes a backdrop of moody storm clouds, and sometimes against patches of clear blue sky.

It was one of those moments when we, as observers, could feel both immensely privileged and at the same time extraordinarily humble, for to the eagles we must have been just mere earth-tied specks as they proclaimed their dominance of the skies in their courtship dance.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

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.

Autumn is marked also, of course, by the arrival of the Common Cranes, which in their own way also transform the landscape, or rather soundscape, with their gorgeous and evocative trumpeting becoming an almost constant sound whenever one is close to the their feeding and roosting areas. Perhaps a few days later in arriving than usual this year, and numbers are still building up (the winter peak is not normally reached until late November), there were nevertheless several thousand already looking quite at home on the rice and maize stubble fields just to the south of us. As is normal, some elected to feed in family groups, a pair of adults with one or two brown-headed juveniles, whilst others were in larger flocks. In the distance, lines and broken skeins of cranes moved against a dramatic sky where shafts of sunlght pierced the clouds. In a period of sunshine, a pair of Golden Eagles took to the wing, soaring with buoyant flight against a pale blue sky, whilst a Black Stork made an appearance just minutes later.

Back at home, I completed another autumn task, labelling the thirty jars of quince jam that I had made a few days earlier. Although there were plenty of quinces on the trees this year, many had starting rotting on the tree, so it was a time-consuming task to select suitable specimens and prepare the fruit for jam-making. Interesting, my parents told me that exactly the same had happened to their quinces, growing in a sheltered spot in their garden in north Norfolk, in England. Fascinating. Still, I had enough fruit to make a delicious jam, which will keep our guests happy at breakfast right through winter and spring.