Saturday, 31 March 2012

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 side of the track, tucked in close to the wall.

Champagne Orchids were bursting into flower (also photographed), dotted between ancient olive trees and beside patches of flowering rock roses and French Lavender. A few Conical Orchids were present too, but no sign of Sawfly Orchid which is usually findable at this time of the year. These resilient survivors gave me encouragement. There  are places, refuges where for reasons of micro-climate, soil depth, aspect, less grazing pressure and other subtle factors, plants can buck the trend, where if one looks hard enough these plants can be found. Above me a pair of newly arrived Booted Eagles were heralding spring, calling and displaying, and whilst  I retraced my steps,  immaculate Green Hairstreak and Marsh Fritillary butterflies were also looking for flowers, reinforcing further the sense of optimism I had secured on my short afternoon walk.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Ben's 5000

Ben’s list was unequivocal. An experienced birder who had travelled widely globally, this was his first birding trip to Spain. There were only 27 species on mainland Spain that he had not seen. Work schedules meant that he would be in Extremadura for just three days’ birding and then have a couple of days or so north of Madrid. It was mid-March. I love this type of challenge! Ben emailed me his target list and I indicated which ones were going to be possible in Extremadura: all but two of them in fact. But the timing was going to wrong for several: summer migrants that only arrive in April. There was also a species, Citril Finch, that would require a long and special journey and that Ben could find more easily during his trip north of Madrid. So the list was filtered down to 19. Of these there were about six that were unlikely to be around by this date, although conceivably were possible. So we were looking at 13 that I needed to find and a few more that we could look for, but would be bonuses.

Ben was joined by his friend Hans, who also had some targets including a couple that were different from Ben’s. The stakes rose!

Ben the previous evening had already seen Great Spotted Cuckoo and Azure-winged Magpie (species number one - see John Hawkins' photo above - and two) on his way to our house. Our first day concentrated on the birds of the open plains. As I have referred to in recent blogs, these habitats have been blighted by the drought this year. However, at our first stop, singing Corn Buntings surrounded us and a pair of Iberian Grey Shrike treated us with great views. Then we found a group of Little Bustard, the third of the target species to be seen. Three of four males were in full-breeding plumage with their black-and-white chevron necks. Just minutes later, a small party of Great Bustard (species number four) flew past with their slow, powerful wing beats. Others were to be seen over the next hour. Just minutes later we were watching some Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (species number five) which were initially stubbornly staying just in view on the skyline of the field, but with patience we were rewarded with fine views of this beautifully patterned bird as they fed.  We continued down a track, getting close views of Thekla Lark (number six), seeing Crested Larks nearby to provide a comparison. Then several Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over, splendidly set against a clear blue sky: species number seven, so far so good.

We explored another area of plains where often one of the possible targets: Black-eared Wheatears are present, but clearly we were still a bit too early in the season, however more Black-bellied Sandgrouse were seen. Following a distant view of a soaring Bonelli’s Eagle, but closer views of a Sardinian Warbler (species number eight) we stopped at a river valley to look for Cirl Bunting. I got very brief sightings of a pair on the ground and in a tree, but Ben saw only movement, not “tickable” views. We went down the path again after lunch and also drew a blank. We then decided to go to look for one of Hans’ species and just a minute after getting out of the car at Montánchez castle we were watching two confiding Alpine Accentors. It was a splendid afternoon there with Alpine Swift passing overhead, Red-rumped Swallows, Blue Rock Thrushes and more Sardinian Warblers.

The following morning, off to Monfragüe National Park and within minutes of arriving we were watching a superb Spanish Imperial Eagle (species number nine), along with Eagle Owl and Black Stork. Nearby Hans saw another of his sought-after species: Rock Sparrow. Then at another stop we found a singing Subalpine Warbler (species number ten). We enjoyed the rest of the day in Monfragüe before returning home. That evening Ben added Scops Owl to the list (No.11), with lovely views of one close to our house.

Ben felt that for his last morning he would really like to get good views of Great Bustards in display, rather than try again for Black-eared Wheatear on the steppes, so we visited a favourite spot of mine. Quickly we found a group of Great Bustards, but it looked as if they were not fully in the mood. Some males looked as if they might start their extraordinary display, but seemed to give up half way. Then we spotted a closer male, all on its own. He was a big, brightly-coloured specimen and as we watched slowly it lowered its wings, its neck inflated, it seemed to turn its wings and tail inside out, as it became a huge white quivering ball, its orange neck now like a medicine ball, almost touching the ground. Wow! As we left, we saw a group of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a Little Owl. We then headed to an area of scrubby habitat, excellent for warblers. However, despite good views of Dartford Warbler and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in some nearby Cork Oaks, the hoped for- possibles: Spectacled and Western Orphean Warblers, were not present – it was simply a little bit too early in the spring for them. Then onto the mountains to try for three remaining possible species. At our next stop we quickly found what we were looking for, prolonged if distant views of a male Black Wheatear (species number 12).  But we waited and waited for Cirl Bunting until, yes, one started singing. However, rather uncharacteristically for the species, it was singing from rather deep in an oak tree and try as we might all we saw was movement and then the bird flying off – again “untickable” views for Ben. Was this species going to let us down? I wanted then to try for Firecrest and we went to an area usually good for them. However, it was getting a bit late in the season for them and when we arrived the area was busy with roadworks. We spent a few minutes finding a quiet stretch of the road to walk along, but no joy.

I had to give up on this species, but felt that Ben could find this while birding north of Madrid later, so we took one last chance for Cirl Bunting, visiting a lovely stretch of the Almonte River. The afternoon light was glorious and birds were coming down to drink and bathe on the river. Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails and Chaffinches were splashing about. Unusually there was also a fine male Bluethroat also present.  Then I saw it: Cirl Bunting, a female coming down to bathe. Just when Ben got his binoculars on it, it hid behind a stone and all you could see was the water splashing as it bathed! Luckily Hans had also been looking and when I said that the bird was hidden, he replied that he could still see it. But he was looking somewhere else, and best of all, had found a beautifully-plumaged male. We whooped for joy when Ben feasted his eyes on it: Cirl Bunting (at last!) number 13.

And so the day ended, we had found all 13 species we were looking for, with the dates not being right to pick up extras. Ben revealed that he was now just two species short of reaching 5000 species on his life-list. Ben had two and a half of days left in Spain and with Hans they went to find White-headed Duck, but because of the severe drought the lagoons in question had more-or-less dried-up. However, I gave him some suggestions for finding Firecrest and Citril Finch in the mountains north of Madrid. There, on his birthday, having found Firecrest (4999 on his life list) the day before and having almost given up on Citril Finch, in falling snow and with barely enough time to make it back to the airport, he came across a flock of these gorgeous finches just a few metres from his car. What a bird to be number 5000, what a milestone to reach on his birthday and under what memorable circumstances. Well done Ben! 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The drought continues

The top picture was taken a year ago by one of our guests, John Tschopp from Canada. It is the view across the nearby plains of Belén to the Gredos mountains, about a hundred kilometres away. They rise to almost 2,600 metres and form the northern boundary of Extremadura. It shows the mountains as they normally would appear in March, covered in snow. The lower picture is the same view taken this March. The difference is striking. The mountains bear testament to the fact that we are in a long drought which has lasted all winter and is now pushing its way into spring too. The foreground in both pictures tells the same story. The upper picture shows green pasture, in the lower the field is parched. There is no sign of rain on its way and now the unusually bitterly cold temperatures of early February have been replaced by temperatures more suited to late April. The ground is like dust and very few flowers have managed to show an appearance. In my vegetable garden, the broad beans are a sorry sight, the rows broken by big gaps where plants have withered. I have planted lettuce and Swiss chard and am watering them furiously. Everyone has the same story and are equally worried. Livestock farmers face having to buy more feed at prices that will rocket. Farmers depending on rain for their spring crops are desperate. This will mean a higher cost of living, hurting an already fragile economy.

It is not good news for the birds either. Breeding success depends a lot on the amount of primary productivity, i.e. how much the plants will grow. On that depends the number of insects and other herbivores. On these many birds will depend. We have enjoyed two wonderfully productive springs over the last two years. For many birds one poor spring can be overcome: long-lived birds will experience good times and bad, so that single bad episodes may not be significant during a lifetime, small birds have fewer chances, but their populations can often bounce back after a setback. However, there are some species that we are particualrly worried about. Little Bustard is one. Unlike many birds in Extremadura, its population has been declining very sharply over the last decade or so. We know that dry springs can reduce their breeding success enormously because of the absence of food for chicks. To an already highly vulnerable population, such setbacks can be very serious indeed. We are all hoping for rain.

I drove back home across the plains, feeling troubled and helpless. My mood lifted somewhat by the sight close to the road of a party of proud male Great Bustards, which took to the wing in their powerful, stately fashion. From a nearby pile of stones a movement caught my eye and for a moment we looked at each other. It felt like just the two of us. Little Owl and me.