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Extremadura on foot

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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…

Children with Cranes

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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 fl…

Dotterel delight

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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 o…

Thick-knees at roost

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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…

Distant Sierras

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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 …

Ephemeral strengths of autumn

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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 …

Bird timetables

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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 stu…

Extremadura's second spring

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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 t…

A walk late summer morning

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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 w…

Bustards in the burnished gold

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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 ev…

Fire season

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Sun and shade

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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 hou…

Busy herons in the peak of summer

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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 …

The value of the path well-trodden

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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 …

Finding diversity

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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 af…

Melodious May

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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,…

Spring flourishes with a memory of winter

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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…

Rewarded by colours

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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 change...as well as the Nightingales, the sound of Golden Orioles and Bee-eaters a…