Showing posts from 2012

Crane counts and other news

I had settled down comfortably: camp chair, warm clothing, the trunk of the great encina (Holm Oak) behind me, its evergreen canopy above, hiding me from view. I was sitting in the dehesa at the end of the afternoon, with a view of the small Tozo reservoir in front of me. My aim was to be as well-hidden as possible, the reason: to watch and hopefully count the Common Cranes coming to roost at this small water body, surrounded by the dehesa of encina, providing the acorns which the wintering cranes are sharing with the free-range Iberian pigs. One of my activities in winter is to participate in surveys and counts of birds. There are surveys too in the spring, but with our birding holiday business at its peak at that time of the year, it is usually difficult to commit time to volunteer for survey work as well. Winter is different and it feels good to be part of a band of like-minded birders, gathering information which is then pooled, analysed and contributes to our wider understanding…

Anticipation and hope

Whatever our pursuit, deep down we all thrive on uncertainty of outcome. Anticipation and hope are the drivers that push us forward, into action. If everything was certain at the level of two plus two equals four it would hardly be worth getting out of bed each morning. We actually do not want arithmetic certainty, but instead an exploration of levels of probabilities and possibilities. Why watch a football match if you knew the result already? One settles down to watch a match with a sense of anticipation, hoping for a memorable experience, a good result....but one never knows for sure what will happen. When I take people out birding in Extremadura, we set out with hopes and a sense of anticipation, but I cannot be totally sure what we species we will see, or how well we will see them. Nor can any nature guide. I could visit the same spot everyday and each visit would be different and there would always be something unexpected. I often wonder what it is like for a cultural guide tak…

What a beautiful autumn!

As a nature guide, there are many things I have absolutely no control over. I cannot guarantee that I will find every bird that my clients ask for - although everyday, without fail, has its rewards and surprises. And I cannot control the weather. Out with a wonderful group for a week, we had just endured our second day of heavy and quite persistent rain. We were seeing great birds and the folk were in high spirits, but always as a guide I want to do my very best and the weather was creating a tough challenge for me. We popped into a favourite bar of mine for a break and as the group enjoyed the excellent coffee that these little village bars unfailingly provide, I chatted to the owner of the bar. "Lots of rain" I said and she replied: "Yes, and doesn't the countryside look wonderful!". She was absolutely right. In my concerns about making the most of our days in the field, I had blinkered myself to the fact that all of us who live here had been praying for rai…

Herons and egrets in Extremadura

This is shaping up to be a good autumn as far as the weather is concerned here in Extremadura, with plenty of rain so far this month. The landscape is looking magnificently green. The gorgeous little bulb, Narcissus serotinus is in flower on the plains, putting forward a wonderful, if ephemeral, show. At last the Common Cranes are arriving too, rather later than usual this year. Four days ago I visit the crane reserve at Moheda Alta, where there were 77 (yes, I counted them all) Common Cranes feeding on the rice stubble fields, and just a few hours later that number had increased to over 300 as parties arrived through the morning.

During the week I picked up my copy of the study published by the Spanish Ornithological Society  (Garrido, J. R., Molina, B. & Del Morel, J. C. (Eds) 2012. Las garzas en España, población reproductora e invernante en 2010-2011 y método de censo. SEO/BirdLife. Madrid) on the census of breeding and wintering herons and egrets that took place in 2010 and …

All change for autumn

I had been away for over six weeks, indeed the longest absence from my beloved Extremadura for eight years. When I left summer was still upon us, with the landscape looking tired, dry and withered. The Red-rumped Swallows nesting by the kitchen door had their second brood of chicks noisily chattering away within their beautifully built nest. Coming back earlier this week, the first thing that struck me was how the landscape had become an emerald green. This is how we always hope it should look like by mid-October and is testimony to the autumn rains. For us, in many ways, autumn feels like a second spring, a changing of the guard as far as the birds are concerned, but also a transformation of the colour of the fields and plains. The Red-rumped Swallows had left just a few days before I returned, but as soon as I arrived home, I heard Robins calling. They are winter visitors to our garden and their ticking notes and winter song will be with us now right through to spring.

I headed out…

So flows the river

I suppose my fascination with rivers started as a small boy, thanks to the proximity to home of a small tributary of the Thames, the River Roding. So close infact, that by scrambling through a hole that I had made in the hedge at the bottom of the garden, I could emerge beside a muddy bank and onto a little path that followed the meandering river upstream. We lived in the small village of Abridge in Essex, just 20 kilometres from Hyde Park in London, on two London Transport bus routes and close to the Central Line of the Underground, but still the village felt part of rural Essex. The very name Abridge, drew attention to its relationship, our relationship, to the river. From the house we could look over water meadows which once or twice in the winter would flood. Waking up we would look across a vast shallow lake, with dozens of Black-headed Gulls apparently aimlessly drifting about as they swam on the surface. But it was the river which was the magnet for me. A place for me to wande…

As summer ends

As August ends we always have the sensation of a turning point. We have just returned from our annual visit to Britain, taking part in the magnificent British Birdfair and staying on for a few days with my parents in North Norfolk. The British Birdfair is not just easily the best place to catch up with my old friends and colleagues, spanning dare I say well over thirty years, but also a shop window for Extremadura. Over the three days of the fair, we speak to hundreds of people and almost immediately emails start coming in as people start to take in what they have heard and start planning their next holiday. Our booking schedules start getting filled as we impart advice on the best time to come to meet the expectations and dreams of those who we hope will soak in the pleasure of birding in Extremadura as many have done before them. A few days then to relax on the Norfolk coast, meeting old birding friends again, this time in the field itself and renewing aquaintance with species that…

Bands of Bee-eaters

Another heatwave, fiercer than before with temperatures now over 40 degrees in the shade by our kitchen door for most of the afternoon and evening. There is a seemingly still mood everywhere. People are indoors for most of the day, getting work done outside first thing in the morning and taking the evening walk (el paseo) with neighbours. I have completed another annual tasks, always in my August to-do list, chopping off the shoots from the bases of the olive tree trunks. Over the late spring these have sprouted to form first a stubble and then by August a dense mass of vertical shoots. Over the last couple of mornings, using a small hatchet, I've cleaned the bases of the trees and there are now sheep in the paddock to nibble off the little shoots. It is a satisfying, pleasing task, leaving the broad bases of the trees clean, their wonderfully gnarled outline now defined and precise. What wonderful old specimens they are, with numerous holes and niches, one having provided a nest…

Pratincole gatherings

Late July and dawn down on the rice fields. The crop is standing deep and green, covering practically all the fields around me. Already there are teams of people working in the fields, pulling out weeds and a couple of tractors are out there as well. At first glance the area seems almost birdless, apart from a few White Stork standing on the banks separating the fields. A distant Marsh Harrier is quartering the ditches. There are parties of the tiny finches, the Red Avadavats, with the males now in full breeding plumage: bright red with white spots, hence their delightful Danish name: the Strawberry Finch. Originally from India, they are quite at home in the ditches beside the paddies and have their breeding season in the autumn.

I turn up a little track and there, resting in front of me, is the biggest flock of Collared Pratincoles I have ever seen here. I quickly estimate 250 birds and when I later go through the photo (below) I count 262...not bad!

The group was a mix of adults an…

Watching the Iberian Lynx

What struck me almost immediately was the number of rabbits. We do not see many in Extremadura, but here I was seeing more rabbits in one morning than I would in more than a whole month at home. This was a good sign, because our quest on this mid-July expedition was a rabbit-specialist, the Iberian Lynx. Claudia, Patrick and I, along with our friends Anthea and John Hawkins (who took the attached photos of Lynx here) and David Hosking, had ventured outside Extremadura to spend four days in the Sierra Morena, near the Andalucian town of Andújar.

The hilly terrain was covered by holm oak dominated dehesa, open woodland providing grazing. There were stone pines dotted around and exposed, weathered granite boulders, reminding me of the berrocal habitat around our home town of Trujillo. The Jándula river ran through the landscape, with two dams creating narrow, steep-sided reservoirs. Most of the landscape in view was either Natural Park or large hunting estates.

This refuge for the Iberi…

Heat from Africa

For the best part of a week a southerly airflow has brought in the highest temperatures of the year so far. We live nestled beside a gentle hill, surrounded by trees in an area locally acknowledged as having its own moderate microclimate, always a few degrees cooler than the town of Trujillo, just a few kilometres away. That being said, the mercury in the thermometer in the shade just outside the kitchen door has been hitting 38 degrees Celsius most afternoons over the last few days. With Patrick's school term now finished, we are now in full summer mode!

In more exposed areas, the temperature has been reaching 40 Celsius and what many people do not realize, the temperature here hits the highest point for the day in the summer at about 6 or 7 pm. The early morning (sunrise here is just before 7 am at the moment) offers perfect conditions to be out, but inexorably the heat builds up. By early afternoon one is driven indoors. This is when we are glad of the local vernacular archite…

Snug beneath the brambles

The brambles were starting to spread out from the shade of the quince tree towards the row of onions in our small vegetable garden, so armed with pruning shears I set out to tidy them up. A distinctive high pitched alarm call was coming from a few metres away, a Nightingale. I had heard this on previous days on my routine visits to tend the vegetables. As I moved the brambles away, a slight movement caught my eye. I looked more closely and to my astonishment there was a neat grassy cup on the ground, amongst dead leaves, tilted slightly and containg four tiny naked, blind nestlings. It was the first time I had seen a Nightingales's nest and what was more surprising was it was no more than a couple of metres from the water tank, the focus of my daily visits since the vegetables now need watering every day. Unseen by me, the Nightingales had built the nest, laid a clutch and sat and incubated them. The brambles had provided excellent cover.

I gathered the cut bramble and placed it …

Red-rumped Swallows return

When we first moved into our house El Recuerdo, there was an old Red-rumped Swallow's nest in the porch close to the kitchen door. The following year a pair nested in an old pigsty but since then nothing. Our neighbour has a pair nesting in his garage, as well as several pairs of Barn Swallow, but for many years, swallows of both species (as well as House Martins) would use our house to sunbathe on and our trees as places to seek shade - but with none nesting. So it was a thrill last year to have two pairs of Barn Swallows nesting on our property and this year one of those two nests has been repaired and occupied again. I admit to a special fondness to hirundines. As a small boy, I decided that House Martins were my favourite bird and whilst sharing my name with them was surely one of the reasons for my decision, I also loved to watch them in the skies above our village. There was an old half-timbered pub down the road with a grand House Martin colony and they struck me as cheerf…

A Quail and other tales

It is one of those birds that are quite widespread here, but hardly ever seen. Although this year, like many of our summer visitors, they seemed rather slow in arriving in strength, one can now hear Quail calling on almost any visit to the plains, especially if one is beside a growing cereal field. The call, usually rendered as "wet-my-lips" immediately gets one looking across the crop in a vain hope that the bird may be in view. If it is close enough, a short, soft double-noted nasal call can also be heard.  It can be very difficult  judging how close the bird is or in which direction the sound is coming from. And since the Quail is no bigger than a Skylark and will be calling from tall vegetation, the chances of seeing one calling are slim indeed. When I do see Quail, and this is very rarely, it is usually because I have been lucky enough to spot one on the track ahead of me, as sometimes they come out into the open to gather grit. Although they are mainly summer visitors…

Spring so far

Well it has been a topsy-turvey spring. In mid-March we were in shirt-sleeves and even some brave souls ventured for a dip in the swimming pool. There had not, however, been any rain, as my blogs described. April started with a few showers and then cold windy conditions which have persisted throughout the month. The fresh, sometimes very strong, winds removed any benefit of the early April showers, dessicating the soil even further. Then, just as spring should be rolling into early summer, the skies have turned grey and we have experienced several days of rain. The soil is now truly damp, there is standing water in some of the fields and there has been a resurgence of growth, with some splendid shows of late spring flower meadows. If we are confused, I am sure that the birds are as well. Many have delayed breeding. Whilst some like Long-tailed Tits and Stonechats have fledged young already about, others like Crested Larks are only just started building nests. Generally the cold windy…

Despite the drought

Whilst last spring the flowers were quite breathtaking, this year has been a real contrast, owing to the very severe drought. Finding orchids has been a real challenge, with flowering much later than normal, plants smaller and much sparser. Several species which were easy to find by this time last year have yet to appear. I wonder if they will. So it was with some trepidation that I ascended a green path, close to our home, a walk I do several times a year and always, always in late March. Not only does the track offer great views of the village, nestled in the hills, but the flowers at the base of the old stone walls and in the adjacent old olive groves form a sort of milestone for me in the progression of spring. I feared that some of my favourite plants were be hard to find, or even absent altogether. I was relieved and happy to find out that I was wrong.  Stunning as always was the noble Iberian Fritillary (see the photo I took today) and several specimens were growing on either …