Sunday, 27 May 2012

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 cheerful and friendly, chirruping away as they worked on their nests, a throng of constant activity and so close to human presence. I was fascinated by their mud nests, save for a small entrance-hole a closed structure hanging from the eave and wall, made from hundreds of little pellets of mud, each one brought as a mouthful of mud to the nest. As a ten-year old I tried to emulate these nest-builders, gathering blobs of mud (in my fingers, not mouth!), mixing it with dry grass and forming a cup under the eaves of a small shed. I did not have the care nor the patience of the House Martins, and soon my blobs became lumps and although the nest would be finished within a day, it would fall off in big chunks soon afterwards.

In the second week of May this year we noticed that a pair of Red-rumped Swallows had started taking an interest in our porch. They have a lovely nasal twanging sort of call, that really does seem conversational and we would sit in the kitchen, listening to the Red-rumped Swallows chatting just outside the door. They liked to perch on the hook that I had put up a couple of year's ago for Claudia's hammock. Our pair of Barn Swallows nesting nearby seemed rather antagonistic at first to the Red-rumps and on one night the Barn Swallow pair roosted on the hook itself, as if to say "we do not want you here". However, if you look closely enough at Claudia's picture (taken on 12th May), you will see some tiny splashes of mud on wall near the Barn Swallows..

Clearly the Red-rumps had made some initial progress in getting a nest started. Sure enough on the photo of 14th May, the base of the cup is clearly visible and after that work started in earnest.

 Just three day's later (17th May) the nest looks like a fully-formed Barn Swallow nest, but for the Red-rumps there was still much to do.

By 22nd May the cup was staring to close,

with the nest looking rather like a House Martin's the following day (23rd May)....

On 26th May, the nest was complete (12 days after the nest-building had started properly) and the pair were starting to line it with fine grasses.

In a fascinating paper by David Winkler and Frederick Sheldon published in 1993, they looked at the evolution of hirundine nests. It is thought that the early swallows made nest burrows (as indeed some, such as the Sand Martin, still do) and that the habit of constructing a hanging-nest from mud appeared once in the evolutionary tree of swallows (and swallows are the only birds that make this type of nest) possibly as an innovation to occupy areas where nest cavities or suitable substrates for burrowing did not exist. The subsequent elaboration of design may have happened for various reasons. One idea of why the Red-rumped Swallow has a closed nest with a long, narrow entrance is because the pair usually mates inside the nest and this reduces the likelihood of the female copulating with intruding males. Certainly, as with many birds, the male sticks pretty close to the female at all times at this early stage of the breeding cycle and a few days ago I saw a third Red-rumped Swallow being chased away from the site.

And so this summer we look forward to the delightful company of the Red-rumped Swallows in our porch, my only headache now is to find an alternatve site for Claudia's hammock!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

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 here, a few do spend the winter, mainly in the rice stubble fields in central Extremadura, where occasionally I might see one flying up from my feet as I walk beside a field. So Tony and Alwin Knowles and I were fortunate indeed to not only see a Quail a few days ago, but also to watch it calling at length. We were driving along a quiet road, beside a field of wheat, when one called from quite close by. I stopped and then we realised that there were in fact two Quails calling, one responding to the other. Our bird was closer and I started to check the edges of the vegetation nearby, in what I thought would be a forlorn hope in seeing it. No sign. And then I realised that a bit further away there was something standing on a stone. Checking with my binoculars, I immediately realized I was looking at a Quail and I got Tony and Alwin onto the bird straightway. It continued to call, more intent on its rival than to our presence, whilst Tony managed to get the photo above. It is rare indeed to get such a prolonged view of this beautifully camouflaged and patterned bird.

Each month has its special features of course. What I like about May is that it combines the excitement of spring, with each day being different, as the season unfolds, whilst at the same time a growing sense that the breeding season of birds is now getting into place, almost all birds have now arrived,  and a daily pattern or even routine is starting to take shape. Our garden Nightingale is back, and a creature of habit it most certainly is. At 7.30 am each morning it sings for a few minutes in a bush right beside the kitchen door. At 7.30 each evening it is snacking on the lawn, hopping about, tail cocked, looking for food, alongside the House Sparrows and Blackbirds. Martin Bennett's photo of a Nightingale this spring captures beautifully how fully it sings, not a species for subtle warbling.

The rice fields are starting to get flooded now and the sowing has started. Suddenly what had been dry and barren, now becomes attractive for birds. Late passage waders, such as Grey Plover and Ringed Plover have been appearing, along with a dozen or so other waders. Parties of Black-headed Gulls are passing through with a few marsh terns. It was checking these gulls a few days ago that I found this Mediterranean Gull - a very rare bird in Extremadura, indeed the only one I have ever seen here. Yes, May is like that: the pieces of the jigsaw are getting into place, but there is always the thrill of the unexpected as well.