Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A dedication to my Dad, Derek Kelsey (1923 – 2013)

This is a particularly personal blog entry to record my gratitude and appreciation to my father who passed away on 27th January 2013.

All of us have had mentors and role models. I have always been fascinated in birds and throughout my life there have been individuals at key moments who encouraged, supported and inspired in many and sometimes very different ways. But the greatest influence of all was my father Derek Kelsey (he never used his first name Francis), who started my interest in birdwatching in the early 1960s, sowing the seeds of what started as a hobby and then became my life.

At the age of five I walked with him beside the River Roding in Essex and I still have my notebook which lists the birds that we saw on that morning, some written in clear capital letters for me by Dad, others written by me using letters of all sizes, their names leaving the page at different angles. In those early years, he taught me how to tell apart Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs by song, and – a tricky pair – how to separate the songs of Blackcap and Garden Warbler. These simple experiences somehow implanted in me the capacity to pick-up and store in my memory a vast repertoire of bird songs and calls, a vital skill which I owe to him.

There was the hallowed institution of the Early Morning Walk. In the 1960s, when we lived in south Essex, those unforgettable pre-breakfast walks in the spring, to small copses and plantations, where we found Grasshopper Warblers, or looking out across salt marshes in North Germany and then cycling back at a furious pace to avoid arriving late for our holiday breakfast. In South Wales in the 1970s, we decided to spend a midsummer night sleeping on the summit of the Sugar Loaf mountain near Abergavenny, under the stars. At dawn we were shrouded in cold mist and tiny drops of dew decorated my Dad’s hair and eyebrows. As we descended through the oak woods of St. Mary’s Vale we were surrounded by the song of Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts, Wood Warblers and Tree Pipits. It was like the dawn of time.

These were the days before modern telescopes for birding and my Dad had an old cumbersome brass telescope, which you could only use by finding a fencepost or someone’s shoulder to support it on – unless a convenient bank enabled one to sit down, lie-back, cross-legged with the telescope balanced at the corner between one’s foot and shin. However a birding pal of ours in Germany used massive maritime binoculars and my Dad acquired a pair of these 20 x 80 monsters and subsequently a huge and incredibly heavy metal tripod, reminiscent of those used by surveyors. It was hell to carry and the binoculars were secured on a custom-built mount with six fiddly screws. But once in-situ it was actually quite an effective instrument, especially for the wildfowl counts that my Dad led each month during the winters in the 1970s at Llandegfedd Reservoir in Gwent, scanning through the rafts of duck, counting each one, using a hand-held mini-tape recorder or calling out the figures for me or one of my brothers to write down. Dad continued his waterfowl and wader counts at Cley Marshes reserve in the 1980s on his retirement following my parents’ move to North Norfolk. Indeed he was dedicated to taking part in bird surveys, another activity that gives me great satisfaction today.

In his final years, he was greatly limited in his mobility and it was in late August last year that Patrick and I took him in his wheelchair on his last visit onto the reserve at Cley. The picture above, taken by my sister Katrina, shows Mum and Dad on the beach at Cley in March 2012. I sat beside him during his final days in January 2013, his sight was dimming and he could hardly speak. Two days before he died, it was a cold morning and snow lay on the ground, and from my chair at his bedside I could see the holly tree beside the house and as I told him that it was being visited by a Fieldfare, whilst a Brambling sat on a twig nearby, he slowly smiled and nodded.

Thank you Dad, my love of birds has shaped my life and it was a gift from you.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Bustards, cranes and sparrows..and a Pallid Harrier

Winter here in Extremadura is about sheer numbers of birds, with always the possibility of surprises to spice the cake. Final figures are not yet in, but results so far show that with over 100,000 Common Cranes counted in Extremadura this winter, it is a record year for this species here. The picture above, taken by my twelve-year old son Patrick, shows a fraction of the birds viewable from the observation tower at Moheda Alta, about half an hour from our home and one of my favourite places to spend a winter afternoon. Along with the cranes, there were hundreds of Grey Lag Geese, part of the Norwegian breeding population and we were delighted to watch amongst the cranes, a couple of hundred Pintail, vanguard of the late-winter surge to Extremadura as thousands of this most supremely elegant of ducks arrive from winter quarters in West Africa en route to northern Europe. The afternoon light caught the rich cream-coloured breasts of the drakes (never really given justice to in field guide illustrations) as they meandered between the legs of the cranes in the flooded rice field.

Not far from Moheda Alta, there is an area of what used to be rolling dry-country steppe-like habitat, mainly arable, which has over the years been slowly converted to a mixture of flooded fields for rice, irrigated land for tomatoes, maize and olives with remaining tracts of rain-fed cereals, like wheat. Despite being intensively cultivated land, quite different from the extensive more traditional mixed farming on the plains closer to our home, it is an extraordinary rich area for birds, and especially productive in the winter. There is varied land-use, so there is no monoculture, creating a mosaic of feeding areas for birds, stubble fields that are left to rest over winter, ditches and uncultivated field corners. Whatever the reasons, the birding here is magnificent. As I entered late one afternoon, a flock of 80 Great Bustards were on the move, flying from one field to another nearby. Great Bustards and Common Cranes strode together in a field full of yellow wild crucifers (see above). Parties of Black-bellied Sandgrouse settled, a Merlin dashed after Meadow Pipits, whilst a few minutes later 40 Little Bustards came in to join their larger cousins. In some rice fields, the crop had not been harvested and vast swarms of Spanish Sparrows settled, darkening the surface of that part of the field, before rising in a tight and twisting flock, up and sideways, loose and then compact before settling again. Some landed on a pile of peach tree prunings nearby, providing foliage, as it were, to these bare, dead twigs.

In the three years up to 2010, I took part in the national Winter Bird Atlas and in 105 hours of observation in  a good cross-section of Extremaduran habitats (mountains and woodland, as well as plains and rice-fields), Spanish Sparrows were the most numerous of the species encountered, with 5070 individuals counted. On the rice fields one can also find House Sparrows and Tree Sparrows, but they are always outnumbered.

The reason for my evening visit was to watch this field of unharvested rice, but the Spanish Sparrows were actually the warm-up, the supporting act. Almost as in a theatre, with this field as the stage, as light fell, so drifted in the dark forms of Marsh Harriers, having spent the day hunting the fields and ditches.. Some landed in adjacent fields first, on fallow or more open maize stubble, the nearby pre-roost sites. In one field over a dozen birds sat and waited. Once the sun had set, in the dusk, the harriers became airbourne again, quartering the fields as they approached the rice crop. Then they hung momentarily above the rice, some twenty birds at one point together before they gently dropped into the rice. There remarkably they disappeared completely, dropping to be immersed completely in the grey-yellow rice stems, as if snuggling down for the night, completely out of view. Perhaps seventy Marsh Harriers, probably more, vanishing into the rice, which cannot have been more than 30 cm high.  I stood, waiting in anticipation for a special guest, topping the bill on this evening's show. Darker still and four or five Hen Harriers had also arrived, likewise disappearing into the rice. I watched the smart males with their black, dove grey and white plumage, the wing tipped boldly back and a black training edge visible on the underwing. As I was watching these, another, even paler bird appeared, in view for barely a couple of seconds before it stopped to rest in the neighbouring grassy field. I could only see its head and wondered, rather anxiously, whether it might decide to stay put there and not fly into the rice. I need not have worried. As I watched, my attention fixed to it like glue, it took off, turned and then paused over the rice before descending. It was much whiter than the Hen Harrier, no dark trailing edge on the underwing, and as it turned, the wing showed the distinctive narrow wedge-shaped black wing tip. It was a male Pallid Harrier, a very rare bird in Spain, and like all stars it did an encore, taking off from the rice to do a final turn to show-off all of its features before dropping, this time for good, deep into the rice.

Pallid Harriers, birds of the Central Asian steppes, may be on the move westwards as a result of agricultural changes possibly giving cause for the increase in the winter and passage records in western Europe. I would not be surprised to have further sightings of the species here in Extremadura in the future.

The show had ended, indeed the Pallid Harrier appeared to have been the last of all to enter the roost. The crop stood still, impossible to tell now that it held dozens of roosting harriers. As I turned in wonder and contentment back to car, a Black-winged Kite took off from the old road sign beside my vehicle. It was barely light enough to see anything as it glided with stiff wings and then hovered over the ditch beside the now empty stage.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The first Great Spotted Cuckoo

We saw the New Year in with our guests from England and Germany, and with the morning of New Year's Day being rather misty and dull, the day was spent tidying-up, doing some paperwork and preparing that evening's dinner. A few minutes in the garden did produce one of my favourite birds, a fine Hawfinch, as well as Spanish Sparrow, Spotless Starling and Azure-winged Magpies as a kick-off to 2013. So it was with great anticipation that I set out on the 2nd January to share the joys of birding on the plains nearby with our guests Anne and Keith Honnor. As is usual in winter with calm, clear weather after some damp days, we quickly encountered a thick bank of fog, precisely at my intended first stop. Despite the almost zero visibility we could just about make out dozens of small birds feeding on the pasture beside us: Skylarks, Rock Sparrows, Meadow Pipits and White Wagtails. A Green Sandpiper appeared momentarily in the mist above us, giving its strident call, which often finds its way incorporated into the song repertoire of that superb mimic, the Calandra Lark. As it would prove later on, the fog at that stop was fortuitous since it encouraged me to make a mental note of returning there later in the day.

We then headed to the other side of Trujillo, where as is also usual in winter, we found clear skies and sunshine, the fog banks often being localised and patchy.  Here we found three very distant Little Bustard feeding in a field. Something caused them to fly and it was a delight to see them settle in another field, right beside the road. We carefully approached and had good views of them,. Atop a patch of high ground, in glorious sunshine had gathered a party of 14 Great Bustards. A splendid male Hen Harrier quartered an area of granite outcrops, scattered bushes and stone walls, keeping very low to the ground.

It was time to move on and we stopped for lunch at a site where the plains extended in all directions, rimmed by sierras. The landscape was an emerald green, with masses of yellow crucifers in flower. The mist had dispersed and we felt it getting gently warmer as the sun strengthened. There were even two butterflies on the wing (2nd January!), a Clouded Yellow and a Western Dappled White. We had planned a walk after lunch, but instead spent the following two hours simply standing and enjoying the birds as they came to us. A large group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were feeding several fields away, periodically rising as a noisy flock , wheeling high and gliding down again. A delightful Little Bustard was pecking at the crucifer flowers nearby, whilst parties of vultures had found the first thermals of the day. As we watched, I caught a glimpse of an eagle, flying low in our direction, the sun catching the white leading edge to the wing: an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle. It glided up to perch in a clump of eucalyptus trees where it rested and preened in superb light, before taking off and flying past, just seconds before an adult Golden Eagle also made an appearance, soaring just to the other side of us.

The sun was getting lower and I was keen to get back to the area where we had stopped first whilst we had sufficient light. We arrived there , with clear skies still, although to the south one could see that in that region the fog had not lifted all day. A group of about twenty Great Bustards looked resplendent in the winter sunshine. Close by a bushy-coated fox walked along a fence-line, right below a Raven that sat on a post. The fox stopped and they looked at each other for a few seconds before he continued his stroll. About fifty Black-bellied Sandgrouse, in two parties, fed at close range and perfect light, providing extraordinarily good views. And then, as switched our gaze between sandgrouse and bustrards, we spotted the icing-on-the-cake: a Great Spotted Cuckoo flying past. It was the earliest I had even seen one here (my previous earliest was 6th January in 2008 - it is one of the first spring migrants to return): a wonderful surprise for what had been a really satisfying day in the field. It pressed home a key message too about birding: just how rewarding it can be to sit (or stand) and wait. Most of our birding time that day had been spent at just two spots and we had seen more than we could have hoped for.

The photo above of a Great Spotted Cuckoo was taken last spring by Raymond de Smte: one of his favourite birds.