Wednesday, 29 August 2012

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 hardly if ever find their way to my regular birding haunts in Extremadura.

So it is easy to start thinking well ahead and as a wonderful counterpoint I was delighted to receive copies of many photos taken by one of our guests this spring. Raymond de Smet first visited us last September and found on his last morning here Extremadura's second only Cream-coloured Courser. This spring he spent about two weeks here in May. Among the many pictures he sent, I am illustrating this blog with just a tiny selection. Each one brings back memories of his wonderful enthusiasm on returning to our house in the evening and sharing with us the highlights of the day. He took many photos of Rollers and I particularly like the one at the top of the post as it shows its intense and vivid colours on the wing. He tends to specialise on birds in flight and here we can see photos of Great Spotted Cuckoo (another focus of his on the visit) and Montagu's Harrier.

I think this Alpine Swift is superb,

taken from the Roman Bridge in Mérida and showing clearly that it is carrying in its mouth a ball of insects that it has collected on the wing and which it is about to feed to its young in a nest situated under one of the bridge's ancient arches. It will dive under the arch and up to the nest at breakneck speed.

His evening shot of the square of Trujillo will evoke happy memories of those who have combined culture and birding, taking in the historic site whilst watching the parties of screaming swifts dash around the towers of the fortified palaces or the storks bill-clacking from their lofty nests. This last photo of White Storks nesting on a tree is particularly poignant. One of the over-riding memories of this spring was the drought, which led to a very poor breeding season for many species. White Storks  were very badly hit with hardly any pairs managing to raise young to fledging. But they are long-lived birds and will have good years as well as bad, and they will be back on their nests by January when the bill-clacking will again be heard around Trujillo's square, as doubtless it has been ever since the churches and towers were built.

I head off tomorrow for six weeks working for Save the Children in South Sudan.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

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 site for a pair of Hoopoes every year since we have been here, and who knows for how many years beforehand. A traditional site indeed.

In the garden, the source of drinking water becomes ever more important for the birds, most delightfully the parties of Long-tailed, sometimes perhaps a dozen or so, who confidingly come to drink and bathe whilst we are just a few feet away.

The cypress trees have a fine crop of green cones at the moment, on which Hawfinches are gorging themselves. And just to show that migration is also underway, three Green Sandpipers flew over, high above the house, this morning as I sat outside with a  cup of tea.

But perhaps the most evocative at this time of the year and the bands of Bee-eaters that drift over (See the photo at the top of the post - all of today's pictures were taken by John Hawkins).  They have finished breeding now and these parties are a mixture of adults and juvenile birds, feeding just prior to their journey to Africa. Just as in spring when the very first Bee-eaters to arrive herald themselves by their fluty "pprrruit" calls and appear at great height, generally heading north, these bands in August announce their appearance vocally. But unlike in the spring,  this time the flocks of twenty or thirty birds are much lower and they lack the directional urgency of the first arrivals. Now they appear almost lazy, with a flowing, buoyant, drifting flight, almost as if they were allowing themselves to be carried by the faintest of summer breezes. I enjoy this sight as much as I can, grateful that their calls had me looking out for them and knowing that within just a few days they will have gone.