Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Extremadura on foot

Marsh Harrier (John Hawkins)
I had been walking for two hours along a track across the mixed farming landscape that makes the plains of Extremadura so rich for birdlife. The path took me down beside a small pool. The view across the water was staggering, the surface was bristling with duck, almost all of them Teal, giving their sharp cracking calls. I tensed, not wanting to disturb them. Those at the edge of the water nearest to me, took off momentarily, splashing down again in the water after barely a few metres in the air. I relaxed, the duck clearly had no interest to move on. Those on the bank dozed or preened, whilst those on the water milled around, and the scene was reminiscent of slow-motion dodgems at a fairground, seemingly random movements, which brought back memories of smoke particles, Brownian motion and school physics. They were tightly packed on the water and I made an attempt to count them: my estimate reached 1600 Teal alone, along with other duck such as Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity at the other end of the pool and again a margin of Teal took off for a short flight into the relative safety of the crowded centre. A Marsh Harrier had appeared and was cruising low above the opposite bank, then some more panic amongst the duck as an adult Peregrine Falcon hurtled into view. Despite the sudden appearance of these two raptors the duck appeared quickly almost nonchalant. This must have been because the raptors seemed more interested in each other, rather than a potential meal. The Peregrine sharply turned and twisted, tail splayed as it mobbed the Marsh Harrier, which rolled in defence. Up spun the falcon, to gain height and then stooped in feigned attack on the harrier. I stood alone on my track, a silent witness.

All week I had been on foot in Extremadura, exploring different habitats and landscapes, with the purpose of surveying birds, but with the reward to making daily discoveries, insights and an intimacy with wildlife that only the observer on foot can experience. Twice I stood to watch dog foxes saunter past, oblivious of my presence and once I engaged in a staring contest with a Roe Deer, under the autumnal colours in a wood of Pyrenean Oak. It took me back to childhood forays, setting off to walk alone in copses, field edges and along riverbanks. I walked paths that were unknown to me, having just a map as a guide, some fruit in my pocket. On most days here in Extremadura, my walks took me across plains, hillsides and forests where I could walk for hours without meeting another person. But this was how I came across wintering flocks of Little Bustard, in what seemed unpromising terrain, or admiredthe sight of a two male Bullfinch, a rare winter visitor to my part of Extremadura, deep in a shady, bramble-filled gully.

One of many trails across Extremadura (John Hawkins)
The unfamiliar terrain added the sense of adventure, the light touch of a frisson of anxiety if the path seemed to disappear or my way was impeded by a fence. But such moments were rare - Extremadura is indeed great walking country with public rights of way criss-crossing the landscape. Many of these trails are centuries old, dating back to the early Middle Ages, when the guild of drovers, the Mesta, were granted rights to exercise their trade through ribbons of Common land, a network of byways, with a nomenclature designated by their width. The only challenge today is that many of the smaller trails and paths are poorly marked, if at all, which makes them very hard to find. Hence the impression that some visitors to Extremadura have of a landscape that is enclosed and inaccessible. It takes confidence to set off down tracks in woodland, and sometimes having to return after just a few hundred metres because what seemed a promising walk ended in someone's property. Luckily more information is now available on the internet, and some of the local councils have been investing in signposting some very attractive walks. I welcome these initiatives hugely, but much as painted signposts can reassure, I will always also explore those unmarked paths, exercising my rights to feel the personal reward of discovery and solitude.

Walking in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Children with Cranes

Boys and girls watching cranes
There was that magic moment, that first connection. Taking her turn in the queue, the little girl reached the telescope and looked down through it, who knows perhaps for the first time ever. The image that greeted her was a group of Common Cranes, unnoticed by her naked eye, she saw now through the telescope their plump bustles of drooping feathers at their hind-end, their slender necks reaching down to allow the bill to daintily peck at the left-over grain in the stubble.

"Wow, they are so big". I found another group of cranes for her to look at: "wow, they are so big" she repeated and then "wow, so many cranes". As children do she wanted to share her discovery with everyone and soon, more children lined-up  to peer down the telescope. How well designed are tripods, I mused, allowing the telescope to be set at the perfect height for the little boys and girls to see for themselves real cranes, in the wild, peacefully feeding in family groups and small flocks. I hope that the children thought themselves lucky, but I was really the lucky one. It was a real privilege to become the interloctor, as it were, between these most special of birds here and groups of children during the day who, thanks to their parents, were spending a perfect winter's day watching cranes as part of the annual Crane Festival in Extremadura.

I was part of a team of guides who, during the day, took out groups of adults and children into the dehesa woodlands and stubble fields near the Crane Information Centre at Moheda Alta, to show them flocks of wintering cranes and other birds. The children's excitement was utterly infectious. During a short coach journey between stops, the same little girl almost whooped with joy everytime a group of cranes flew past. These children and their parents would be returning home that evening thinking and talking about cranes, having seen many hundreds during the day, listened their trumpeting calls, and heard about the wonders of their migration, their arrival each winter to Extremadura and how they form part of the folklore and culture of peoples in so many countries.

The Crane Festival is a special event because it gives first and foremost an opportunity for the people from Extremadura itself to celebrate the birds which after flying 4,000 kilometres share the winter landscapes with us. Buses brought people in from towns across the region and at the Crane Centre itself, under the embrace of a huge model crane, visitors could mill around, visit stalls, listen to local folk music, watch street theatre and join our excursions to see the cranes themselves - although, indeed, throughout the day, cranes could be seen and heard across the skies above the Festival. I took part in the activities from the start - a "Breakfast with Cranes" which saw us at dawn watching the cranes leaving their roost to feed in the woodlands and fields around us. On my bus trips during the day, we stopped to watch cranes feeding on the maize and rice stubble fields and concluded each trip with a visit to the Cubilar Reservoir. There on the shore gathered dozens of cranes whilst rafts of hundreds of duck dozed on the flat calm water. Against the backdrop of the Villuercas Mountains we watched another wintering bird from northern Europe, an Osprey, circle the lake several times before diving down and then flap heavily away, fish in talons. As it found a tree to perch on to consume its catch, a pair of Golden Eagles soared above us, soaking up, as it were, the winter sunshine.

Cubilar Reservoir with the Villuercas Mountains

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Dotterel delight

Dotterel (Jesús Porras)
It was impossible to resist. The wonder that is the birders' grapevine (here in Extremadura through an email group) brought the news that a friend of mine, Ricardo Montero, had found a group of Dotterel about an hour or so from our house. The following day, another friend, Jesús Porras went to relocate them and posted the above photo on his Facebook page (IberianNature Guías de Naturaleza). Now Dotterel, which have the rather spendid Spanish name Chorlito Carambolo, are truly delightful birds which I have long wanted to see in Extremadura. Indeed it has been many years since I have encountered the species - I used to watch them sometimes on spring passage on the east of England. In spring, the plumage is very striking with rusty orange underparts and, like that other curious group of waders, the phalaropes, the males are duller than the females and take the lead role in incubation and care of the young. Similarly they can be unusually tame. The Dotterel is a species that breeds on high mountains and which passes through Extremadura on passage in very small numbers. They stopover at sites of thin soils, stony ground with sparse vegetation or well-grazed sward. It is thought that these resting places may be traditional, but the challenge is that the extent of such habitat in Extremadura is vast and these stopovers may be just for a few days. This means that the species goes largely undetected here, with some years no records at all, despite birders visiting suitable habitat and carefully checking fields at the right times of year.

Jesús had given me excellent directions and I got out of the car and gazed across what looked like perfect Dotterel country. A quick glance produced several Lapwing and Calandra Lark, but no sign of anything else. So I walked back along the track about a hundred metres and then systematically scanned across the fields as I returned to the car. Three Griffon Vultures and a Black Vulture had become airbourne and effortlessly rose on a hidden thermal. The sky was cloudless and the light conditions superb. I stood by the car again and this time looked again at the first area, where the habitat had seemed most promising. And there they were! A group of four Dotterel in their greyer non-breeding plumage had emerged from a belt of dry thistles onto open ground. Feeding like true plovers, they took a few paces and then stopped, then a few more paces before another stop and a peck on the ground. At least two others were further off, amongst the thistles still. I stood delighted and mesmerised by these wonderful birds, with their almost swollen creamy superciliums, black beady eyes and the suggestion of a pale necklace hanging across the breast. I was intrigued as well: are they here on a stopover, or perhaps  for the whole winter? The species winters in North Africa, but it has been known to stay in a few places  in Spain as well. This site had all the appearance of being potentially a good area. And as I watched them, memories came back of my earlier sightings, a long time ago, on fenland fields in eastern England, which apart from the sense of space, bore little similarity to these rough sparse Spanish pastures, especially since as I watched the Dotterel my ears soaked up as well the sounds of sandgrouse and a multitude of Calandra Larks. And I marvelled at the luck of Ricardo who had found these proverbial needles in the haystack and recognised his generosity at passing the news of his discovery on.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Thick-knees at roost

Stone Curlew (David Palmer)
Despite being widespread on the open plains, Stone Curlews (or Eurasian Thick-knees, as they are sometimes called) can be tricky to find in the spring. This is partly because of their wonderfully cryptic plumage and their preference for bare open ground, which on a sunny day will be bathed in heat haze by mid-morning, meaning that ground-dwelling birds will, as it were, dissolve in the shimmer. It is not helped also by the fact that Stone Curlews are mainly nocturnal, so one will be looking for birds at their most inactive period of the day: standing motionless or, worse still, sitting down flat on the ground. In autumn and winter, on the other hand, the task is much easier, and this is because, like many birds outside the breeding season, the Stone Curlew forms winter communal roosts. So with little heat haze to worry about, once one has found the roost, one should be able to enjoy prolonged views of often rather sleepy thick-knees. The roost sites tend to be traditional, a cultural transmission down through the years and across generations of Stone Curlews. What is interesting is how often these sites persist as chosen roosting areas, even though some of the features which might have made them attractive have disappeared. One roost which I first became acquainted with about eight years ago, had all the appearance of a classic site with large pebbly patches on the ground, wheat stubble and some widely spaces trees at the edge. The field then became converted to a solar farm, with huge solar panels covering the terrain. This was too much for the Stone Curlews. But instead of moving off to a less-disturbed area, they merely moved barely a hundred metres. This roost is now in rough pasture, in a rather impoverished-looking tree-plantation, beside a busy (for local standards) main road and next to derelict buildings used by local youngsters for mini-raves on a Saturday night. Weekends will also witness greyhounds being exercised there. It is hard to imagine a less attractive place for Stone Curlews. Indeed at first glance, it is easy to assume that your misgivings are well-founded as the first one is often quite hard to spot. Suddenly though something catches your eye, a hunched shape, with striking yellow legs and half-closed, rather dozy, yellow eyes, as depicted beautifully in David Palmer's photo above taken at this particular roost.

Once you have seen one, nearby shapes also metamorphose into Stone Curlews, some sitting on the ground, others like the first standing hunch-backed, a few taking a few paces walk. Ten birds..twelve...fifteen.. in view. But it takes a passing danger, perhaps a Marsh Harrier drifting overhead to get a true estimate of the numbers there. Seventy or eighty take flight, descending soon afterwards on a glide with their rather long gull-like wings.

I often wonder where they all come from. I know of two other roosts of similar size not more than a few kilometres away. Together the number of wintering Stone Curlew in these three roosts must exceed the breeding population within a similar radius. We do know that birds from northern Spain move further south in the winter and the Spanish population is supplemented by wintering birds from places like France and England. But until a bird turns up bearing a coloured-ring, I will only be able to guess the origin of them at this roost, although I can more safely assume that this communal roost will comprise the same birds from one year to the next, showing a site faithfulness or philopatry, which offers survival advantages drawn from familiarity with a particular area, its resources and risks.

On last Friday evening I was in Trujillo, undertaking parental duties waiting to collect our teenage son Patrick from a classmate's birthday party. As I sat in the car, I could hear the continuous sound of Spotless Starlings, still making a racket a couple of hours after nightfall from their communal roost site in a stand of trees in a town park. After a day feeding out on the plains, hundreds upon hundreds arrive at dusk. One theory about the function of such communal roosts is that they offer means for hungry starlings to obtain information about the best local food sources, presumably they follow well-fed birds out to the pastures the following morning hoping that they will be led to the right places.  And I could only imagine the type of communication going on between these garrulous birds, well past their bed-time. In fact so much noise was coming from the roost that it took me a few minutes to register a different sound altogether. Trying to block out the starlings I could now recognise the unmistakeable sonorous deep hoot of an Eagle Owl. I walked along the street in the direction of the sound, looking upwards.  And there, perched on top of a tower, seemingly oblivious to the sight and sound of traffic and people was the Eagle Owl, the street lamps catching, as it turned its face, its caramel-coloured eyes. I could even see the pale bases of the throat feathers each time it hooted. It sat there for half an hour, calling two or three times a minute, before silently gliding off on its broad wings to hunt. The nocturnal predator was on the move over the rooftops, as the diurnal starlings at last settled down in their roost.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Distant Sierras

Red Kite (John Hawkins)
It was exactly two months since I had last walked this circuit and the immediate difference I noted was sound. Birds that were not here at the end of summer were now part of my soundscape. The gorgeous sweet liquid notes of the winter song of Robins, flowing like a caress from the undergrowth was the first contrast. Then the thin calls of Redwings flying overhead, impossible to find against the intense blue sky but the unmistakeable sound of these migrating Scandanavian thrushes. Quickly afterwards came the more throaty calls of Skylarks, another migrant from the north and then the weaker calls of the trimmer-looking Meadow Pipits. It was perfect migration weather: calm and clear and the visibility was superb. The Gredos mountains (see photo below), over a hundred kilometres away stood sharply defined and, as always on days like this, magnificent. The landscape had changed as well, of course, looking refreshed and luxuriant with fresh, lush grass. It is no wonder that autumn is such an important lambing season here: the sheep have recovered their form after the deprivations of the summer drought.  

The Gredos Mountains from the Sierra de Los Lagares
These are the days when the leading figure in the sky is the Red Kite. A scarce breeding bird, the population increases by at least twenty-fold in the winter with arrivals from the north. They become the most commonly seen bird of prey, with one of two somewhere in the sky almost every time one stops to take a look. Driving early in the morning towards Trujillo the sightings will easily reach double-figures as birds leaving their communal roosts head off for their morning patrols.

As Claudia and I continued our walk, Small Copper, Brown Argus, Bath White and Clouded Yellow butterflies explored the side of the track, stroked by the gentle autumnal sunshine, whilst a Common Chiffchaff, yet another winter arrival, called from the encina holm oak beside us. The view we now had before us was westward towards the Sierra de Montanchez, across expanses of encina dehesa.

The view across to Montanchez
It was warm by now, but the ice on the car windscreen this morning was another marker of the season's progress. With the change of the clocks last weekend, the afternoons are getting shorter and on returning home, the grate was prepared for the log fire. From now on the little plumes of oak wood smoke drifting from the chimneys of the dwellings in our village will be a feature of each close of the day.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Ephemeral strengths of autumn

Autumn Crocus
The timing could not have been better. A couple of days after plenty of rain the sun had warmed the earth again and out on the plains, on some of the barest patches of land, we were literally struck speechless by the spectacle before our eyes - the autumn bloom on the steppes. It was the patch of Autumn Crocus that first caught our eye: small and flimsy lilac-purple petals appearing as if out of nowhere. Getting on our hands and knees, or even better lying flat on the ground, gave us a long ground-level view down the slope of an old drovers' trail. The isolated  clumps of crocuses miraculously merged into a colourful hue, a haze of pink revealing just how many of these flowers there were.

As we silently explored this tract of ancient common land, we came across other species. What had initially appeared as a rather barren corridor of withered grass and thistle stalks, with an emerging green of fresh grass shoots, we discovered instead was a treasure trove of flora. It was a case of tuning in and focussing down. There were hundreds upon hundreds of my particular favourite, the Autumn Snowflake. delicate little white bells hanging down from spindly dark stalks.

Autumn Snowflake

Autumn Squill
Serotine Narcissus
Dotted amongst them were the tiny purple spikes of Autumn Squill and the miniscule Serotine Narcissus.What all of these species shared was paradox, indeed many paradoxes. They turn autumn into a second spring, they are at the same time ephmeral yet a statement of resilience, individually tentative and so easily overlooked, but collectively  create a breathtaking display. They all produce a shoot which turns into just a stalk and flower, in a matter of days, but with no leaves at all. There in is the wonder of them all. Their leaves grew in spring, where they would have been indistinguishable (at least to my eye) amongst the myriad of other plants creating the Extremadura spring. Unobtrusively they soaked in the sunshine, storing energy and nutrients in their bulbs. Their leaves withered and died back during the long summer drought. With nothing visible of their existence, no clue to their presence until the first good autumn rains, they then emerge to flower, a gorgeous conquest of their habitat.

They offered the only source of nectar and pollen around and attracted a multitude of insects: Brown Argus butterflies, pollen beetles and small bees.  And as we soaked in this special autumn treat, Calandra Larks chased and squabbled with each other, dashing in noisy packs across the grasslands whilst the first Meadow Pipits of the winter called as they passed overhead.

Sharing this experience with me was Derek, Zena, Phyllis and John, and it was simply wonderful to watch each person in solitary communion with this experience, in quiet and profound satisfaction. For Derek it was his fifth time in Extremadura and I remember his first visit when he told me that he liked to return to favourite places, at different times of the year to get to understand them at depth. And so he has been back to visit us, at five different moments of the year and with a broad interest as a curious naturalist.

Dragonflies can be excellent here in Extremadura in autumn and thus during this visit, we explored different habitats in pursuit. The vivid Violet Dropwing we found on the banks of the River Tajo in Monfragüe National Park. This plum-coloured species is abundant in tropical Africa and has been spreading into soutrhern Europe over the last forty years.

Violet Dropwing
Whilst this Long Skimmer is also a recent arrival from Africa and we found several specimens at the Arrocampo reservoir nearby.

Long Skimmer
With strictly no rushing around and with plenty of time for relaxed pottering around in different habitats, we found without any special effort a dozen species of dragonfly and nearly thirty species of butterfly as well. This first week of October had proved to be highly productive for plants, butterflies and dragonflies, with the birds as well providing an exciting supporting cast, summer felt prolonged the presence of a few stragglers like an Egyptian Vulture and Short-toed Eagle, autumn passage was at its peak with masses of Whinchats whilst the scent of winter approaching was marked by the first Common Cranes arriving to feed on the fresh stubble fields, their bugling call now becoming a daily feature of the soundscape.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Bird timetables

Red-rumped Swallow (John Hawkins)
One of the pleasures of birding, especially when visiting certain favourite places regularly throughout the year, is to mark the changes through the year with the arrival and departure dates of birds. The former are much easier to record - the first swallow or cuckoo of the spring is a simply a case of seeing (or hearing) the bird and scribbling the fact down in one's notebook (and in the old days perhaps dash off a letter to the local newspaper!), But unless one is methodically noting down every sighting of say swallows in the autumn, you are never quite sure when your last observation of the year will be until they have gone. Our family of Red-rumped Swallows are still around the garden and roosting in their nest by our kitchen door every night - but for how long? On the other hand, a friend posted a few days ago the arrival of a wintering Robin nearby, which means that any day now we should also be hearing them in the garden.

The phenology of birds' migration (i.e. the study of the timing of arrivals and departures) therefore adds a lot of spice to days in the field. At the peak of migration times, in spring and autumn, each day brings the prospect of seeing a newly arrived bird. Thus seeing the first Red-rumped Swallow of the year here may well be the highlight of day's birding in late February, whereas throughout the rest of the spring and summer, they will be familiar birds, seen every single day - with "our" nesting birds giving special joy of course. When we have moved in to a new area (it happened in Colombia, India and then Spain in 2004), one of processes of personal ornithological discovery is getting familar with the phenology, the timetable, of our local birds. Another friend here, and excellent local birder, Sergio Mayordomo has painstakingly gathered data from local bird reports over the last 15 or so years to produce a table of the arrival and departure patterns of migrant birds in Extremadura- literally a migration timetable. You can see it on this link:

It is a great piece of work and in some ways I wish it had been around when I first came to Extremadura - but I am rather glad it wasn't - it was a source of personal fascination to navigate through phenology and discover some of these patterns myself.

There is more nowadays to this sort of study than simply marking the seasons. Phenological studies are showing us how birds are being affected by climate changes. Research has shown how Reed Warblers are now arriving in  western and central Europe 14-21 days earlier than they did 40 years ago. In southern Germany Schaefer and his team showed that the start of egg-laying moved forward by two weeks between 1973 and 2002. Earlier breeding in Reed Warblers is increasing their clutch size, their breeding success and the number of pairs that have second broods. This may be a factor to explain their increasing population. But some species which winter further south may have less flexibility because they have to finish their annual moults in southern Africa and are therefore not able to move their departure dates forward. Thus birds like Icterine Warblers are showing fairly stable arrival times in central Europe but may be suffering because the earlier springs mean that they are no longer synchronising their breeding with the peak of food availability to feed their young. In many European countries now, bird conservation bodies are taking a closer interest in pheonology of migrant birds. Like the canaries in the mines, or birds of prey hit by pesticide use, birds are proving once again their huge value as indicators of environmental health.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Extremadura's second spring

It is a more dramatic transformation than spring itself. Whereas winter gradually turns over to spring, with a stepwise succession of flowers appearing from January through to their flourishing climax in April and with spring migrant birds too coming on board from the turn of the year,  the arrival of autumn can hit one with a jolt. And we welcome this surprise guest with open arms, a herald of the closure of the seemingly unrelentless summer heat and the start of what is really for us a second spring. The transformation happens in just days, although when it occurs is totally unpredictable. It is driven by the first rain, which can happen at any time between late August to October. It only takes a few hours of good solid rain to bring about this metamorphosis. Tiny, sharp slivers of grass shoots break through the dirt and mat of dusty, parched dead vegetation. Each one barely a couple of centimetres tall, fresh and vulnerable, but in their collective mass powerful enough to change the landscape, an alchemic conversion of dry golden pastures to an emerald sheen. Autumn flowers will follow over the next few weeks but it is the all-embracing re-emergence of grass that lifts the spirit at the back-end of the year. How quickly landscape converts to a truly lush growth will depend on the rains that follow, but the switch has now been set.

My picture at the top of the post was taken a couple of days ago, in the freshness that felt like an early autumn morning. Loose flocks of House Martins wheeled in almost chaotic fashion, before finding wires to perch on, in a tight file. Unseen against the open blue sky, a Woodlark sang gently, its cadences caressing me, whilst a Wren gave some autumn song from the brambles. The garden had other sounds too, those that I only hear at this time of year: the sharp calls of Pied Flycatchers, taking their final pause before crossing into North Africa and over the Sahara.  And crossing into view was a gliding Booted Eagle, wheeling in a low, wide circle and giving its loud, rather high-pitched "chip" calls, a vocalisation which one associates much more with their courtship in spring.

Whinchat (John Hawkins)
The autumn migration is at full pace and the plains have staggering numbers of Whinchats (photo above) and Northern Wheatears, perched on the fences, which serve as superb vantage points to spot insect prey on the ground. These alert, inquisitive birds are everywhere. Small parties of Tawny Pipits are appearing as well, sometimes perched on the wires as well, but generally preferring to be foraging on the ground.

The Equinox happens today with the sun crossing the celestial equator and autumn starts in the northern hemisphere. It was preceded by the Harvest Moon, silvering the pre-dawn sky in which hung Jupiter in its brillance. All change in the heavens indeed, but the green shoots of the year's second spring in Extremadura had signalled this all in advance.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A walk late summer morning

Common Redstart (John Hawkins)
The last day of August and after having been away in England for two weeks I am returning to a different seasonal feel. We are on the cusp here and today the signs of autumn were outweighing the vestiges of summer. I set off from the house just as the sun started to peek above the slopes of the peak of Pedro Gómez, the one thousand metre mountain to the east of us. It was already ten past eight in the morning - dawn is getting later. Not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky, just our pair of Red-rumped Swallows gliding overhead. I set off on my walk, a circuit of our own mountain, part of the Sierra de los Lagares, taking an anti-clockwise direction, first northwards and then around the western flank of the hill. The verges and banks beside the track, which had been such a dazzling display of colour in the spring were now uniformly dry, dusty yellow, carrying a distinctive warm scent. Only patches of grey-green Heliotropes offered a sign of herbaceous life.  Occasionally I would walk into a pocket of cooler air, plunging as it were and here a relict aroma of Wild Fennel hit me. My progress had led me to north of the hill and from here there was a magnificent view across the dehesa and plains, to the granite outcrop, the berrocal, on which at its highest point stood Trujillo, its Moorish fort and medieval churches catching the low morning sunlight.

Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)
As I headed south along the western flank of the hill, I was once again catching the first rays of the sun as it starting to rise over our mountain, giving me a second dawn. This expansive terrain of old olive groves and holm oak dehesa is the habitat of choice of passage migrants that I was hoping to find on this walk. It is these species, above all, that tell me autumn has come. Birds that have bred far from here, in cool temperate deciduous woodlands of central and northern Europe, finding shade in the olive and evergreen oak groves of Extremadura before making their crossing of the vastness of the Saharan sands to spend a winter sojourn in tropical forests and savanas. My first encounter was with a Pied Flycatcher, perched on a lower branch of a holm oak, calling loudly. Just further on, a Spotted Flycatcher flew from its perch to the ground and then back. A Common Whitethroat became curious of my presence, coming through a thick tangle of brambles, peering at me with typical stance with its body tilted so that its back and tail rose high above its head. More flycatchers - my count of Pieds had now reached ten and there had been a total of three Spotted Flycatchers. And other migrants as well - Common Redstarts, Garden Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaff. There were local birds too, like Golden Orioles and Spotless Starlings feasting on figs, a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling from an oak and Hawfinches flying overhead. At one point, I turned a corner and found myself staring at a rather surprised Roe Deer - the first I had ever seen in the Sierra de los Lagares.

Booted Eagle (John Hawkins)
As I approached the house, completing my circular walk, the sun was high enough to encourage a Booted Eagle to start soaring  and a party of noisy Bee-eaters circling amongst the hirundines, they will all be on the move soon. Not for the first time I was struck by the apparent, almost seamless ease that these migrant birds can fit in and become intrinsically, albeit temporally, part of such different biomes.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Bustards in the burnished gold

Great Bustard August 2013
High summer on the plains of Extremadura and with the afternoon temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius in the shade - and out on the plains there is none - the only time to be out is early morning or evening. But well worth the effort it is to be out in this landscape in early August. There is a heavy stillness, languid, silence, quite unlike the audio feast of spring. No larks or Corn Buntings singing, just the short flight call as a feeding party of buntings fly over. Everything seems in slow motion. A loose group of Great Bustards, scattered across the burnished gold of the dry grasslands in dawn light, make measured strides as they search for food. Later on they will try to reduce exposure to the heat by sitting on the ground, resting, stationary. Their stately gait is emphasised by their set-square shape: their neck at right angles to their long horizontal body. A juvenile Peregrine stands on a rock,but it is difficult to see whether it has prey, but I suspect it was out even earlier than me and is holding its breakfast in its talons. The sky is cloudless and the blue deepens as the sun rises higher. A purring bubbling sound comes from somewhere above me: Black-bellied Sandgrouse.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse (John Hawkins)
Their distinctive call is both far-carrying and difficult to pin-point. Just by getting a sense where the call is coming from as its source moves helps me eventually to locate the small group. They are rather pot-bellied, but their pointed-wings makes them skillful fliers, and they wheel and then glide down to disappear behind a mound, where there is likely to be a pool to provide them their morning drink. Across the empty plains drifts a buoyant Montagu's Harrier, a bird fledged this year with a shock of orange on the underparts. The building heat radiating from the ground gives it all the lift it needs to quarter the grasslands without a single flap of its wings.

White Storks August 2013
In several places bands of White Stork stand in closed groups, appearing to be resting rather than feeding. These may well be birds on southward migration (storks have already been crossing the straits of Gibrater from Europe into North Africa), roosting over night on the plains and soon to take off again as the thermals develop.  I head off too, for my breakfast, and it is only then as I start the drive home that I realize that I have not seen a single Black Kite. This will have been the first morning out in the field in five months without Black Kites. They are one of the earlier summer visitors to depart and clearly this abundant bird has slipped away, unnoticed, over the last few days, heading south for Africa. Sometimes it is what you don't see rather than what you do that gives you the message of seasons on the move.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Fire season

Belén Plains after the fire

Forensic examination suggests that it was a cigarette-end, tossed by the passenger of a car heading in the direction of Trujillo, that started it all. Then a combination of factors took hold. The long wet spring had bequeathed us a tremendous display of flowers, which gradually became hidden by tall grasses. The rank, lush vegetation dried in the course of the summer heat and drought. By June the plains were parched and yellow, as they are every year. By July, the vegetation was tinderbox dry and this year the amount of flammable material was more than usual. To this, add the weather. Days and days of hot and dry conditions and on the afternoon in question a moderate westerly breeze. It was the wind which would have helped the cigarette butt to ignite the  mat of dry grasses in the immediate vicinity, the wind which fanned the flames and the wind which then drove the fire eastwards, from the roadside verge across the grasslands towards the plains of Belén. Within just a few hours, the wildfire had covered over 20 square kilometres, despite the efforts of three helicopters and a plane collecting water from nearby reservoirs to dump across the conflagration, despite the heroic attempts of fire crews on the ground. Eventually  the wind abated, the concerted work of the fire services was taking effect and the advancing front of flames reached the road crossing the plains. It halted. During the night, pockets of fire glowed like tigers' eyes, before being targeted by gangs of firefighters and at dawn came the blessing of rain, the first downpour for weeks. The fire was extinguished.

It was a typical grass fire, racing across the terrain, sometimes leaving little pockets of ground untouched, islands escaping the blaze, under a tall column of smoke, looking like a thunder cloud and carrying downwind the cloying smell of burning. Mostly trees and shrubs were scorched, but only where the grass had been denser were their trunks charred. Olive groves in the path of the fire that had been well managed, with heavy sheep grazing keeping the ground vegetation closely cropped, will have lost most of their olive harvest this year, but the trees will have survived. 

Fires are a part of the Mediterranean ecosystem. Natural fires would have been caused by lightening (and it is thought that between 2-10% of modern fires are caused this way). Native plants are adapted to periodic fire. Grass fires quickly burn the dead vegetation leaving the seed bank in the soil unscathed - indeed some species of Cistus produce two types of seed: those which germinate with moisture and those which require heating first of all. The fire will have released nutrients from the vegetation and come the rain in autumn there will be a vivid flush of new growth on the charcoal black pastures. Indigenous trees are often well adapted too: the best example is of course the cork oak. We have fires to thank for the evolution of cork as means to insulate the tree from fire. Holm oaks will sprout back from the ground. By July birds on the plains should have finished nesting, so hopefully the bustards and larks should have escaped the blaze. Many reptiles will have been able to find refuge in holes in the ground or in stone walls, although some will have perished. Mammals I suspect will have suffered more.

But wildfires today are not crossing tracts of virgin ecosystem. The fire on Belén blasted farmland and small orchards, people's livelihoods. The pasture will recover, as will most of the trees, and although almost all of the traditional stone buildings were more or less unscathed, some farmers lost barns full of hay and straw. Tragically too, despite valient efforts to move livestock, some animals too were lost. Fires bring fear and anxiety for all of us during the summer months. 

I stood and took the photo above. The Belén Plains, a Special Protection Area for birds,  landscape where Great Bustards and Stone Curlew roamed in a soundscape dominated by Calandra Larks, now a vast cinder. A few sheep explored the foreground, whilst in the distance white dots betrayed the presence of dozens of White Storks, picking up the remains of dead invertebrates. The bustards, Stone Curlews and larks will be back and by the spring there will be few clues left of what had happened. Thus I tried to find some solace, amidst the sadness and anger that the view in front of me provoked.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Sun and shade

We are in the middle of the first heatwave of the summer. As I write it is 4pm and in the shade of our porch it  is 36 degrees Celsius. The hottest time of the day is between 6 and 7 pm, so I expect it will hit 38 and then remain above 30 degrees until nightfall and the forecast is for another week of this weather, at least. Thanks to our relative altitude here (about 630 metres above sea level) and north-facing aspect, we are a comfortable two or three degrees "cooler" here than nearby Trujillo. Even so, the best place to be at this time of day is indoors, where the old thick mud-and-stone-built walls of our house create the perfect conditions for escaping the heat to read, write, rest or take a siesta. The day is long enough for one to feel that outdoor activities, for a few hours at least, can be put to one side.

I love the pace of summer in Spain, a sensible slowness takes over every living thing. Here in rural Extremadura, outdoor work is now pushed to the first few hours of the day or into the evening, with everything shutting down in the heat of the afternoon. It appears that nothing is out in the sun. Even the trees seem asleep. Birds are resting and going to extraordinary lengths to find shade - look on the shady side of a telegraph post and perched on the wire, as close as possible to the post will be a Magpie, Lesser Kestrel or Iberian Grey Shrike. Even the butterflies withdraw from the full blast of the sun at this time of the afternoon. The photo above shows the dehesa landscape in summer, where each tree gives shade and therefore refuge and each canopy contrasts dark green against the yellow-gold of the parched ground - an intricate patchwork of sun and shade.

But there is plenty to do. The garden needs lots of attention, especially the vegetables. I have a 300 litre water tank in the vegetable garden, from which I have set up a drip-irrigation system to keep the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, and cabbages watered. This gets filled everyday from one of our boreholes, a task which Patrick helps me do each evening, with the water entering the tank, crystal clear and deep-ground cold, refreshing us as it gushes out of the pipe into the tank.

The mid-summer produce (see photo above) is looking good this year. Claudia and I find some shade in the evening to sit and watch the butterflies - like this Spotted Fritillary coming to the Buddleia, or the antics of the Nightingale bathing in the foot bath of the outside shower. A time to recharge batteries, reflect on the busy season that has just finished and starting drawing up plans for the rest of the year. But most of a recovery of quality time together.

It truly feels like the middle of summer, and yet the evidence for the turn of the year is building up. This morning I went out at dawn to the rice fields where the number of autumn passage waders is slowly increasing. Last month Green Sandpipers and Lapwing had arrived, now as well as three Black-tailed Godwit, there were two Wood Sandpipers and an interesting party of male Ruff, twelve in all, with blotches of colour on their plumage, remnants of their spring courtship garb. From their vestigial lekking behaviour, as they crouched and ran towards each other, turned and twisted, it was almost as if I was watching them on a wet meadow in Holland, instead of atop a sandy bank in Extremadura, alongside Collared Pratincoles and Black-winged Silts. Nearby four male Little Bustards, their nuptual challenges now forgotten, were feeding on an irrigated pasture. Over the next few weeks others will join them, the group growing in size and becoming a winter flock.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Busy herons in the peak of summer

Purple Heron (Raymond de Smet)
We are now in the heart of summer...the longest day has past as has our village fiesta and the schoolchildren are on holiday. The sky is cloudless and the temperature is in the high 30s in the afternoon and will not be dropping below 20 at night. It is also the end of our main period for business, with visiting birdwatchers now very thin on the ground. We have had birders staying with us from the start of the year, right through until yesterday. When asked (frequently) when is the best time to come to watch birds in Extremadura, my answer is anytime from November through to late May - it depends what you want to see. This year we have had quite a few valient souls coming here in June as well. Normally considered a quiet time of the year for birds, this June bucked the trend somewhat with some exciting finds (see my blog of 15 June) and helped by the longer and cooler spring this year, we have enjoyed some superb birding. Over the last few days with my final tour of the season I have been showing the birds and landscapes to Sandra and Caroline. During their stay we started getting proper summer temperatures, so the pace of our days in the field adapted with the heat.Whilst most of the birds have now already finished nesting - the plains seem full at the moment of juvenile Woodchat Shrikes - one of the highlights of the tour was watching the broods of Purple Herons, Black Storks and White Storks at their respective nests. We spent a very satisfying couple of hours (and could have spent longer), watching the activity of Purple Herons (see photo above). We sat sheltered in a hide at the Arrocampo marsh, with a colony of Purple Herons before us in the reed mace. All had large chicks with their mustard-brown heads, jumping up and down on the nests, exercising their wings. Periodically adults would fly in, the young would start clamouring for food which the adult would provide by regurgitating the catch of the morning. From across the marsh the sound of the begging calls of the young Purple Herons would drown out even the song of Great Reed Warblers. Purple Herons do seem to have done well this year. I have never seen so many nesting at Arrocampo and the breeding success looks set to be excellent. We spent time watch the similar going-ons at a large White Stork colony the following day and in the Monfragüe National Park, where from one viewpoint we could see two Black Stork nests with three and two chicks respectively, we waited patiently and for long enough for an adult to make a slow and elegant gliding descent to land on a crag for a few minutes and then tracing another long arc in flight, to reach one of the nests to feed the chicks, looking delightful with their yellow-orange bills, downy white feathers and black wing feathers just sprouting through. On the other nest the chicks were a lot older, the bills now look brownish and their wing feathers well developed

These glimpses into the private lives of these birds were special moments and more than made up for the much harder work required finding birds on the now parched plains. Just to get an idea of how the landscape has changed, just compare the two photos below of the same spot. One taken on 1st May (when the grass is already turning brown, but the flowers were abundant) to that from 27th June.

The plains by late June are a much quieter location, hardly any lark song, but we did watch two male Great Bustards feeding belly-deep in the tall dry grass, two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over on their way to a water-hole, a male Montagu's Harrier was hunting and White Storks were busy collecting grasshoppers to take back to feed their young.

Looking back on the whole season, I have had the fortune to share moments like that with guests on over 90 days this year. Over that time I have shown people 210 species of birds, all but three of which have been found within an hour's drive from the house. It has been another memorable season in wonderful Extremadura.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The value of the path well-trodden

One of the pleasures of the field work involved over the three years surveying for the winter birds' atlas in Extremadura was that it took me, on foot, well off the beaten track, into areas that I had not explored before:  remote valleys and mountain tops, woodlands and farmland. But however exciting venturing into new terrain is, there is an undoubted pleasure too in getting to know particular areas so well, that they become, in birding parlance, one's local patch. Having a local patch is how most birdwatchers start and many will continue to visit a favourite haunt month-in, month-out throughout the year, for many years. Such is most of my birding in fact here in Extremadura. When I am taking out visitors, showing them our local birds, most of the routes I use will include places that I regularly visit throughout the year, whether I am working as a guide, or simply out for a few hours of birding on my own.

The value of these well-trodden paths is the intimate knowledge that is built-up over the years and seasons, a sixth-sense sometimes of particular spots to check, particular fields or shrubs, pools or copses that almost magically attract birds. They provide too one's sense of reference or benchmarks, both to the passing of the seasons, and also to the vagaries of changing populations. One feels different being an explorer in new terrain, compared to becoming absorbed, as it were, in surroundings which have become familar. And it is because of the familiarity of the surroundings that the sense of satisfaction of making a discovery, finding something out of the ordinary, is always greater when it happens on one's own home patch.  And so it happened this year, during a remarkable two weeks from the start of June, a time considered by most as one of the quietest times in Spain for finding something unusual. Let me share with you three moments.

On 9th June, I was taking out Don and Jane across one of my favourite drives across the rice fields, a route I do at least once a month, and sometimes every week, throughout the year. Despite June being thought of as quiet, it is the start of the major turning point during the year, when we start to see the evidence of bird movements that tells us that for some birds the breeding season is over and it is time to move south. This month I start looking out for the return of Lapwings from northern Europe and will expect to have seen a few, perhaps on the dry plains, by the end of June. Nothing quite prepared me for the sight of the flock of 170 that were clustered together on a muddy paddy field (see my photo above). All were adult birds, suggesting that perhaps they were failed breeders from the north. From now on for the rest of summer. autumn and winter, Lapwings will become an increasingly common sight here. Later that day we also saw a pair of Green Sandpipers, like the Lapwings traditional early returnees from the north.

Nearby, is the Sierra Brava reservoir, an area of international importance for wintering waterfowl, and always worth a check at any time of the year. On 1st June with Andy, Clare, Dave and Jann we dropped in there when passing by to look for Black-eared Wheatear. We found none and proceeded on the rest of our route. Later in the afternoon, we were nearby again and decided to give the wheatear another go. As we approached the reservoir, we noticed a single bird swimming in the bay. It looked at first glance like a coot, but something told us to take a proper look. Doing so immediately made us realize that this was no coot, but rather a first summer male Common Scoter, with bright orange-yellow on the bill as can be seen in one of Dave's excellent photos. This was only the third record for Extremadura. As a reward for our find, as we left a pair of Black-eared Wheatears promptly appeared in view!

On 10th June, I again was with Don and Jane and we were driving along a very favourite track on the plains to the west of Trujillo. It was an unseasonly cool and overcast day (winter fleeces in mid-June!), the advantage of which was that we could enjoy watching the birds of the plains in good light, without heat shimmer. Ahead of me was a big concrete gate post, a feature that I subconsiously check every time I apporoach it because occasionally eagles will use it as a perch. This time there was indeed a bird there, looking very pale and strongly marked. There was something very different about it. I stopped and we looked through the windscreen. This certainly was something new, a big falcon with a very pale head and bold moustachial stripe and eye stripe. I held the camera out of the side of the car and took a photo (see below). Over the next 45 minutes we watched this bird, initially perched on the post, it then glided across the track to land on a rock in a nearby field. By the time it had gone, we had seen enough of its distinctive head pattern, evenly barred tail and pale grey-brown plumage to identify it as a sub-adult Lanner Falcon (of the North African subspecies), a national rairty for Spain. Again the value of the local, familar patch and the joy of finding something totally unexpected. Indeed along that track (of no more than a couple of kilometres) and its immediate adjacent fields I have recorded no fewer than 21 species of bird of prey over the years. There is nothing that makes that strip of habitat intrinsically different from other tracts of land in the area, yet it is the patch of open dry country that I visit and watch over more frequently than any other. Indeed the wonderful paradox of the unexpected in the familiar.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Finding diversity

After such a wonderfully prolonged spring this year, the plains of Extremadura now look and smell of summer. The grass is golden and whilst the late spring flowers are still a carpet of yellows and pale purples, there is a sense now of completion. Although the sound of larks remain almost a constant in these late May mornings, the Great Bustard males are now wading through the swathes of long grass, with nothing more to concern themselves than finding food to build up their reserves once more, as typified by this photo by Raymond de Smet. Past ten in the morning and the heat haze makes finding these periscope heads above the flowering grasses almost impossible. Their shape can be confused a bit by the impressive and beautiful Cardoon thistle (a distant thistle head in the heat haze can look a little bit like the head of a feeding bustard) which to me symbolizes the plains at the end of spring.

This thistle is an important part of the rural home economy, its leaf stems being sought after in early spring as the cardo which forms the basis of a delicious and filling meal.

And yet even though the plains now seem to be slowing down, as spring turns to summer, just 43 kilometres from where I took the photos of the thistles, I took the photo below:

These gorgeous wild tulips were about a thousand metres higher up, in the Villuercas mountains, at an altitude where I had, in effect, travelled back in time to early spring. The buds of the deciduous oaks were barely opening, and other flowers typically found flowering at lower altitudes much earlier, were here at their best. The wild tulips were something very special however, the first time I had found them here. As we looked at them, the distinctive calls of Red-billed Choughs broke the mountain silence: a pair was evidently nesting in an ancient ruin nearby. A couple of days later, I visited another mountain range, the Gredos, a hundred kilometres to the north, where despite being at a similar altitude, the vegetation around me was dominated by vast expanses of yellow broom. Here there was a bird absent from the Villuercas mountains: Ortolan Buntings were singing - their rather simple far-carrying and plaintive song a constant refrain and epitomising to me to perfection the vast expanse of mountain terrain. Here too was a male Red-backed Shrike, literally one leg in Extremadura and the other in Castille y Leon, seemingly the only regular site for this Central European species in our region.

Perhaps no other time of the year demonstrates so dramatically the diversity of Extremadura, the variety of experiences, colours and species reachable within relatively modest distances, the ability to move backwards and forwards through the seasons, a time-travelling naturalist indeed.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Melodious May

It had been barely a week since I had last ventured across that particular stretch of plains, but in the days that had lapsed, a subtle but dramatic change had taken place. Helped by a spell of warm, sunny weather, the grass had turned. On the thin, poor soils, the green blades and flowering stalks had become yellowed. Thus was marked that start of the final chapter of spring. On those plains, the extraordinary colours of the flowering plants this spring remained, although the hues and species were shifting, but their background canvass was now burnished gold. In these fields, we will not see green grass shoots again until the autumn rains. And so this most memorable of springs moves inexorably onwards. All of the spring migrants have now arrived. This morning as I was checking the thinned-out cabbages in the vegetable garden, a cheerful, jumble of slurred notes chattered to me from the brambles: a Melodious Warbler. This bold bright-coloured warbler is a familiar bird of the garden, but for some reason they only seem to take up residence in mid-May. I have seen Melodious Warblers in Extremadura since mid-April, indeed the photo above taken by Hans-Jörg Strapp, a Swiss guest of ours, was taken a couple of weeks ago, and superbly captures the rather brash, cheeky character of this bird. Their arrival seems to echo spring: I see them elsewhere first of all, and then sure enough, they are here in the garden, bringing a cascading climax to the tumble of changes that spring gifts us. It is a bird I am particular fond of. The reason, I suppose, is that their close relative, the Icterine Warbler of northern Europe, was a typical species in my grandparents' garden in north Germany. It was a species I thus associated with summer holidays and childhood exploration in the 1960s. The song is different, although I was interested to read of research about the northward spread of the Melodious Warbler and retreat of Icterines, with an overlap of their ranges, where hybridisation occurs and their songs converge.

Standing up from the vegetable garden I can look up towards the house, with the olive grove a bewildering mass of colours, a real wild flower meadow. Like the Melodious Warbler, bright yellow seems the dominant colour!

It has been a spring like no other in terms of the plants, with the unseasonal cold and wet weather that we are currently enduring, prolonging further this visual feast. Although the main period of the lowland orchids is now over, there are still some late flowering species, such as the Bug Orchid, occuring in the damper areas of the plains.

And widespread as well are tongue orchids of various species.....

In early May, I took Mark Ferris up into the Villuercas mountains for an afternoon, rising to 1600 metres above sea-level, passing through belts of decidous Pyrenean Oak, the buds of which had hardly opened. Above the highest, stunted trees, in the scrub zone where Dunnocks sang, we found the attractive Narcissus rupicola. At lower altitudes the narcissi had finsihed flowering weeks ago.

With Mark as well, I enjoyed wonderful close views of a newly arrived White-rumped Swift at Monfragüe National Park, whilst on the rice fields, where the process of flooding and sowing is now underway we watched migrant Yellow Wagtails (including a Grey-headed form heading for Fenno-Scandanavia) and waders such as Grey Plover, also bound for the tundra. I have been back to the rice fields several times since, and each time there has been a different set of waders on northbound passage...Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, even Sanderling. the remarkable thing is that in a month's time, there is every likelihood that the first returnees will be back, in the form of Green Sandpipers and Lapwings...through more and more observations, backed up by advances like satellite-tracking, we now know that movement of birds of one form or another (migration, disperal, nomadism) is happening every month, so surprises can happen at any time. I was particularly pleased a few days ago to find a female Red-footed Falcon (a bird that nests in eastern Europe), only the seond that I have found in Extremadura (the first being a male six days later in the month last year).

Monday, 29 April 2013

Spring flourishes with a memory of winter

The month is ending almost as it began with cool, overcast and wet weather (yesterday even some snow fell in southern Extremadura!), but we have enjoyed superb weather for most of April and today's rain will be passing quickly as May arrives. The photo above shows a Spanish Marbled White butterfly on French Lavander - a glimpse of the colour and life that has been so breathtaking this spring. As I write, the sound of our garden Nightingale comes pouring in through the open kitchen door. Golden Orioles and Red-necked Nightjars are sounds that we are also hearing these days, species that had not yet arrived on migration at the start of the month, and yesterday a Reed Warbler sang quietly in the garden, a bird on passage, taking a few hours rest. Over the last few days there have been other passage birds too making brief apperances in the garden or just beyond: Pied Flycatchers, Willow Warblers and a singing Wryneck. Almost all of our Extremadura breeding species have now arrived on their territories, but the northward movement of birds through the area will continue for a few more weeks. It is always a rather exciting time, as surprises can turn up almost anywhere, although the best place to look for local rarities are the vast areas of rice-fields in the centre of the region. At the moment almost all of the rice fields are dry and being ploughed, in readiness for flooding and sowing over the next few weeks. The secret is finding the few, indeed very few, which are wet and muddy, as these can be like magnets for birds at this time of the year. In my regular routes through the eastern end of the rice region, I came across a couple of such fields, one with a very late Meadow Pipit and two migrant Yellow Wagtails, plus some gorgeous Collared Pratincoles (see photo below by John Hawkins), whilst the other had six very smart Kentish Plovers. Local birders checking an area well to the south-west had the good fortune to find Extremadura's first Red-throated Pipit, as well as a Spotted Crake.

However, one bonus for my efforts was the sight of six Common Cranes (a family party of four and two other individuals). They were seemingly healthy (showing no sign of injury) I suspect these birds having failed to leave nearly two months ago with their conspecifics, will spend the summer here. Occasionally over-summering cranes are seen (I found one a few years ago in July). By coincidence, my copy of the recently published Atlas of Winter Birds in Spain (Atlas de las Aves en Invierno en España) arrived in the post at about the same time. Its cover shows two Lapwings (Avefrías or "cold birds" as they are called in Spanish, and a common winter sight) Based on three years of fieldwork by over 1000 people between 2007 and 2010 (the time I spent on the Winter Atlas fieldwork generated some exciting and enduring memories for me), analysed and published by the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife), it is a fascinating book. I will browse through it for weeks, randomly opening it to look the winter distribution map of a particular species and read the text describing what this shows. What is significant is the importance of Extremadura for birds in the winter. It is the region of Spain with the highest species richness in winter. Indeed, apart from the high Gredos mountains in the north of Extremadura, the region almong with the western half of Andalucia boasts more species in winter than it does in spring. All the more reason to think of visiting Extremadura in winter as well as the always popular spring months!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Rewarded by colours

The reward for the relentless March arrived with a fanfare in April. Over the last week or so of blue skies and soaring temperatures, the landscape of Extremadura has rarely been so luxuriant or colourful. I have just completed several days of serious gardening, perfectly timed to weed, clean-up, plant and sow..a week earlier the ground was still too wet, a week later it may have dried-out and the parts of the vegetable garden would have become almost inaccessible. Beside me as I have hoed and raked, a Nightingale has been an almost constant companion, sometimes singing just a couple of metres from where I am working. There can be no other more exuberant, celebration of spring.

The spring migrants are now up-to-date with their arrivals. I heard the first Red-necked Nightajars of the year a couple of evenings ago as the stars were starting to come out. How the passage of a few weeks brings such dramatic well as the Nightingales, the sound of Golden Orioles and Bee-eaters around the village, as well as the sight of Booted Eagles and Black Kites drifting overhead, have now acquired the familiarity of old friends. The spring has been good for orchids, with Patrick and I finding masses of Pink Butterfly and Giant Orchids in southern Extremadura at the beginning of the month.

 This is the busiest month of the year for us with the house full of guests and me spending almost everyday in the field with visitors. I had a thoroughly enjoyable and fruitful week's tour with Nigel, Muriel, John and Brenda just as the weather was on the turn. During that week the first Rollers were arriving, but there were still wintering parties of Siskins, feeding with the Hawfinches on the mast of the Southern Elm trees. It was during their visit that we had another memorable encounter with the Spanish Imperial Eagles at Monfragüe National Park. We had been waiting patiently at the viewpoint when we heard the adult barking from the nest. It (and it was the female) flew from the nest-tree, crossing the cliff infront of us and landed in the shade of an old holm oak tree. There the male was waiting with an item of prey (it looked like a Red-legged Partridge). The male flew to the nest, whilst the female gorged herself on the meal. On completing her feast, she then flew off with a small morsel, straight back to the nest (see Nigel Sprowell's photo below). Clearly the pair now have young to feed!

As well as the newly arrived summer vistors, we enjoy the through passage of other birds heading further north, travelling through much more quickly than in the autumn, there have been lots of Northern Wheatear, as well as birds like Whinchat, Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart, Whitethroat and Western Bonelli's Warblers.

The cold and wet conditions that prevailed in the first half of spring, which dramatically changed in a matter of a few days, do seem to have put the "damper" of much of the Great Bustard display leks and Little Bustards were still in flocks of a thirty-strong into the second week of April, by which time usually the males are starting to display and compete. On balance though the conditions do promise well for a successful breeding season, which will be in stark contrast to the tough time the birds had last year because of the drought. As I was walking beside the River Almonte a few days ago (see the photo at top of post), never having seen it so high in April as it is at the moment, the hillsides truly verdant, with the colours of high spring, the place seemed simply full of life with birdsong, wheeling House Martins and Alpine Swifts, as well as butterflies, such as the Spanish Festoon, Black-eyed Blue and Clouded Yellow. The weather could not have been more different than it had been just three weeks earlier, but I was surrounded, indeed embraced, by all the rain had gifted us.