Saturday, 28 January 2012

Hawfinches and Lesser Spots

I returned yesterday from the morning school-run and parked the car in the drive beside our Judas Tree. In the last couple of weeks it has shed its leaves and it will be bare now until Easter when its buds will open to an explosion of deep pink. A quiet short call drew my attention and I looked up. A Hoopoe sat perched above me - that didn't make the noise. And then some movement. Close to the Hoopoe a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was busy looking for food, tapping away on a dead snag on the tree. I quietly withdrew and entered the house, leaving this sparrow-sized woodpecker in peace to continue foraging. Looking out of the dining room window into our olive orchard, a party of House Sparrows was pecking away on the ground, whilst close by a party of the slightly more robust Spanish Sparrows were doing the same. A couple of Chaffinches were nearby. But dwarfing them all was a splendid male Hawfinch (see John Hawkins' photo), also on the ground, looking for fallen olives. Its rich mustard brown cap contrasted with its grey bull neck, whilst the fascinating curled feathers on its wing were like the blue-black ink that I used when I owned a fountain pen.

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Hawfinches, two of my favourite birds and both with special meaning to me. As a twelve-year old I used to explore the oak woods near Abergavenny in South Wales, on the edge of the Black Mountains. Forty years later I can still vividly remember the morning that I descended a bracken-covered clearing towards a line of trees along a field boundary, spotting some movement high in one of them and my elation in realising I was watching my first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a long sought-after species for me. Not far from that spot, that same year, I discovered a place where Hawfinches could be found and I can still picture the first one I saw, typically perched on the top of the tallest tree.

Here in Extremadura both species are not uncommon and I see both in our garden. Hawfinches are almost daily visitors (although harder to see in April when they are breeding), whereas Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are less regular. However in late winter and early spring I can hear a male drumming most mornings, and sometimes it will do so on the wooden telegraph post beside our front gate and indeed in the same Judas Tree that I saw the bird feeding in. In Extremadura they seem quite associated with cork oak trees and it must be more than a coincidence that close to us are ancient cork oaks, planted along boundary lines.

The pair of White Stork are back on their nest on the village church, whilst the first Barn Swallow was seen over the garden on 22nd January. Yesterday evening as I took Patrick for a seven-a-side football match, a party of Barn Swallows were feeding over the lake in the town park in Trujillo whilst above them my first House Martin of the year headed to the town centre.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Looking ahead to 2012

I hope it is not too late to wish you all a Happy New Year from the Kelsey family (here pictured in the square in Trujillo last summer, with Patrick proudly carrying his replica of the World Cup after an end of term celebration)! We saw the New Year in having fulfilled a long held promise to make a return visit to our old home in India, celebrating with close friends. We then spent a wonderfully relaxing and refreshing few days near the town of Dehradun in the foothills of the Himalayas, at the house of our dear friends Alpana and Bikram Grewal. The beautiful garden that they have created runs down to a mountain river. There Patrick and I spent every afternoon, watching Common, White-throated and Crested Kingfishers, Brown Dippers and other riverine species. Patrick's goal was to get photographs of as many birds as possible and in particular of kingfishers, and he spent hours, literally, patiently waiting to catch the moment when a kingfisher hovered or dived. Whilst waiting on one occasional, we found a Spotted Forktail foraging at the water's edge and Patrick with new practiced field skills managed to approach it closely to take this excellent photo, which would make anyone proud....and it certainly made me very proud of him.

Bird photography is becoming more and more popular of course as the quality of digital equipment increases. A growing proportion of the people staying with us in Extremadura are interested in photography, at all levels. This ranges from what may be considered opportunistic photography as a complementary activity to the prime objective of watching birds, to those who are coming with a more single-minded mission to obtain photos of a select range of species. For the latter, there are starting to be available here specialist services from people who have permanent hides set up for species like bustards and vultures. I am always happy to give advice for those interested in contracting such services - local regulations are strict, so it is important to make sure that the people offering such facilities have obtained the necessary licences and permits, as well as being careful to avoid disturbance to the birds. I will post a blog next month to give more information on what clients can expect.

We had only just returned from India when I headed off for a short piece of work in Angola (from where I am posting this blog). As I left, the winter landscape in Extremadura was looking worrying dry - we had gone a month without rain to speak of. The weather was gloriously sunny with cloudless skies throughout the Christmas period, but such pleasures come with a price later on. At least I could enjoy during my brief sojourn at home, a walk around the hill. This I aim to do at the very least two times in the heart of winter, counting every bird with the results being sent in to the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO) for their long-term monitoring of bird populations. Two walks combined this year, a total of four hours beside the olive groves, holm oaks and pasture yielded 1526 individual birds of 43 species with Blackcaps once again the most abundant species (241 individuals counted), followed by Chaffinch with 196. Another typical winter visitor for us here, the European Robin was present with no fewer than 72 birds counted. Year by year these counts, combined across the country, will start to show trends, if any, in the populations of winter birds.