Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hallo Lesser Kestrels..Goodbye Cranes

On Saturday 18th February I saw the first Lesser Kestrels of the year. Two of these compact little falcons were gliding over the main square of Trujillo, wheeling over the roof tops of the medieval quarter. Later that same day there were others coming to land on the tiled roof of the Bull Ring on the outskirts of the town, where last year no fewer than 27 pairs nested. Standing to the west of the building in the afternoon, the sinking sun behind one, this is a splendid way to end a day in spring and summer, watching the Lesser Kestrels returning from their foraging trips to the plains, circling, landing, giving their distinctive soft chattering call and tucking themselves into the spaces between loose tiles. A few days later, more birds had arrived and we watched a particularly amorous pair copulate three times during about fifteen minutes, the male making a distinctive thin high-pitched call. This was a particularly fine looking male too, with its peach-coloured underparts, with just a few dark spots on the flanks, dove grey hood, brick red back and wing coverts, with the greater coverts grey, showing as a broad band between the reddish forewing and dark flight feathers, a feature never shown in the Common Kestrel. Our Lesser Kestrels had spent the winter in West Africa, where they meet in huge winter roosts. The return trip is done in four or five days, meaning that in all probability the birds that were flying over the town that Saturday had started the week in Senegal.

So the signs of spring are appearing, although since we are apparently suffering the worst winter drought in seventy years, the landscape is looking more like early autumn. The dominant colour of plains should be emerald green at this time of year, instead it is grey, looking very sad indeed. Indeed, in many respects the autumn colours are more attractive, more golden, burnished yellow, reflecting the fruits of spring and summer. At the moment we are presented with fields that look withered and tired, almost as if they have given up.

It was out on the plains to the south of us on 19th February, the day after our first Lesser Kestrels, that I was out again with the group from Honeyguide holidays. The theme of this year’s holiday was the Cranes and we had seen hundreds feeding on the rice fields a few days earlier. The visit to the plains was in search of other birds and we stopped late morning on an area of higher ground because I had just spotted some Great Bustards. We stood on the side of the road, enjoying wonderful all-round vision, across a seemingly vast panorama, scanning and finding more Great Bustards. Green-striped White and Western Dappled White butterflies were on the wing. Suddenly we picked up the bugling calls of Cranes and there to the west, not far from where we stood, a party of about a hundred Cranes circled in a rather untidy fashion, slowly gaining height on a thermal. They called continuously and loudly. After several minutes they achieved a better defined group and headed in a loose skein on a north-east bearing. We watched them into the distance, the mountains ahead of them, as their group broke-up again and they circled on another thermal, so repeating the procedure, rising, regrouping and heading off again, still north-east, until they disappeared from view. By now another group was calling and had also found the original thermal and was circling as they rose. They too then headed off north-west in a skein. As we looked southwards, the sight was extraordinary. There were groups and group of circling, calling Cranes and lines and lines of Cranes, and all heading in our direction.

These were birds on the move, a mass exodus, synchronised. For what must have been more than an hour we stood there, picking up distant groups, watching them approach, find their thermal and then continue, all in the same direction. As we stood, other calls entered the soundscape as two skeins of Grey Lag Geese also passed overhead. Their formations were far more professional, neat V-shaped structures. They did not stop to soar on thermals, just continued flapping, single-mindedly and, interestingly, on a different bearing: due north.

But it was the Cranes which had us rooted to the spot. We had seen Cranes everyday, close views of family groups and large foraging flocks, but nothing compared with the experience, indeed the emotion, of seeing these birds at the start of their spring migration, taking a well-known route, across to north-east Spain, over the Pyrenees, across France, Germany and then many congregating in southern Sweden, and watched by peoples throughout their journey. This was not a local movement between feeding areas, it was a departure. It was our chance to bid farewell to these wondrous birds that had been so much part of our landscape all winter. We all stood in silence and awe, our throats dry and tight with the quiet realisation that we were witnessing something that we would remember for the rest of our lives.

Photos: Lesser Kestrel by John Hawkins, Cranes by Claudia Kelsey

Monday, 13 February 2012

Cold Birds

A rather nasal "cheee-aw" cut through the crisp morning air: the unmistakeable alarm call of a Northern Lapwing. This was not from a distant bird overhead, instead it came from our olive grove. And there it was, flying up from the ground with its bold black and white tail and heavy wings which look wider and rounder beyond the carpel joint, giving the bird its characteristic floppy, slow buoyant flight. They are gorgeous birds with irridescent upperparts, which show off to perfection in the Spanish sun and an exotic crest.  It was the first time I had seen one actually in our garden, rather than flying overhead. Later that day it was back. Since then, presumably the same individual, has been on the same patch of ground everyday and almost all day long. It seems to have set up a small winter feeding territory because yesterday it was seen to chase another Lapwing off.

The Spanish name for the Northern Lapwing is Avefría which literally means cold bird, probably derived from bird of the cold. Although there is a small breeding population in Spain, it is an abundant winter visitor and can be seen throughout Extremadura on the plains, wetlands, pasture and cultivation, even on roadside verges. I wonder if the reason why we have one in our olive grove at the moment is due to the combination of the severe winter drought we are suffering and unseasonally cold weather. The ground is frozen in the morning and the low termperatures, dry conditions and clear blue skies means that the soil is parched and almost baked hard throughout the day. Lapwings must be finding it hard and perhaps are spreading out into less preferred habitats, finding places where under the influence of a weak afternoon sun, small invertebrates might venture to move.

The term winter visitor is rather loose, in the sense that my first Lapwings of the "winter" are usually appearing at mid-summer, along with the first Green Sandpipers, another wader from northern Europe. Perhaps these first arrivals are failed breeders, or at least birds that bred early from the southern part of their range, because the main arrivals do not flood in until the autumn. Most depart in early spring, so from being such a characteristic bird of the plains in early February, they become much scarcer by the end of the month. A few pairs do breed in Extremadura but are very localised. The only nesting Lapwing I have found were in muddy fallow fields in the rice-growing area in central Extremadura. It was mid-July, but the young were still downy and it made me think whether they were broods from birds which had abandoned breeding earlier in the season somewhere in  northern Europe and had found suitable conditions here. It was fascinating and most curious.

I expect that "our" Lapwing will set off north in a few days time, joining the passage of other birds already heading north. Skeins of Grey Lag Geese have been passing overhead, whilst yesterday Patrick and I watched concentrations of hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin, along with smaller numbers of other waders such as Ruff and Little Stint, feeding non-stop in select rice fields, testament of the fact that many waders clearly migrate straight over the Iberian Peninsular rather than following the coastline.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Accentor curiosities

The mornings have been crisp and days cloudless and I stood at Montánchez Castle. The view was magnificent through northwards to the Gredos mountains over a 100 kms away. Snow was visible only on their peaks, much less than there should be by this time of year: testiment to the long winter drought that we have endured. I was looking for a bird which breeds at the highest points of the Gredos (which reach over 2,500 metres above sea-level)but moves to lower altitudes in the winter: the Alpine Accentor. One still needs to climb in winter to find them. I had found some earlier in the winter on the highest point of the Villuercas mountains to the east, near the town of Guadalupe, at 1,600 metres. Here at Montánchez I was lower, less than 1000 metres, but Alpine Accentors do habitually spend the winter on prominent hilltop rocky peaks, places like Montánchez, often where Moorish castles had been built. Some winters a small flock of Alpine Accentors winter here, but I was having difficulty finding any. After forty minutes of carefully checking the fortifications and the boulder-strewn hillside I was returning to my car when up-popped my quarry. Perched on the top of an outcrop, on the shady, mossy northern side of the castle was a single Alpine Accentor. They are beautfully marked and plump birds, factionally bigger than a Greenfinch - I could tell because a bright male Greenfinch came and sat right beside it. The accentor faced me and then turned sideways, as if to show-off its patterned plumage: rusty red streaks on the sides of the underparts, blackish wing coverts with bold white tips forming wingbars, a white tip to the tail and heavily streaked back. It is a much sought-after winter visitor here, because to see it in the summer you need to be high in the rocky Alpine-zone altitude. The photo here by John Hawkins, was taken a few years ago at the same spot as I found this bird.

Its close relative the Dunnock is also a winter visitor to Extremadura, with a small breeding population restricted to the montane scrub, above the tree-line from 1,500 metres above sea-level. The birds we get in the winter are probably from as far a field as Scandanavia. It has understated plumage, which when looked at closely features rather attractive streaks and hues of greys and browns. Several winters ago a Dunnock achieved fame by being the 100th species recorded in the garden! They are quiet and rather secretive and the combination of their apparent demure behaviour and plumage led the Victorian cleric, the Reverend Frederick Morris to cite the species as an example to his church-goers on how to behave:

Unobtrusive, quiet, and retiring...humble and homely...sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the Dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate.....

Little did he know that Dunnocks betray a bewildering array of sexual relations, ranging from monogamous pairs, to males with two or more females and females with two or more males. It is one of the most promiscuous of songbirds, as revealed by the fascinating studies by Nick Davies in Cambridge. The Reverend Morris could not have picked a more inappropriate example. Indeed the Alpine Accentor displays even more complex mating systems. More on this subject can be found in Tim Birkhead's superb book The Wisdom of Birds (2008).