Saturday, 23 February 2013

The mating game

Despite some rather cold northerlies, more blossom is now appearing, the almonds completing their show as the mimosas start, with their gaudy lemon yellow flowers. Buds are opening..yes, the sap is certainly rising. There is noticeably  more bird song now: Serins, Woodlark, Great Tit, Linnet, Hawfinch, and woodpeckers are drumming. Nesting and egg-laying are just around the corner and the bird world is getting full of courtship and mating. Nuptials with the White Stork are impossible to miss. Probably most of the males that arrived weeks ago on their nests are already paired and the wonderful sound of bill-clacking can be heard from town squares where the nests sit on church roofs and bell towers. This is a bonding call, far-carrying, which the birds use as a greeting ceremony right through the breeding season. The bird standing on the nest will throw its head back and then drop it down, then toss it upwards again, bill-clacking, as its mate approaches. It surely must have provided the idea for someone centuries ago to invent castanets. The sound is very similar and both are mechanically produced - in the case of the White Stork by the knocking together of the mandibles of the bill. I have even seen storks bill-clacking in flight. Away from towns, the sound of clacking will betray the presence of a nest on top of a holm oak tree or on a pylon. Although associated in our minds with towns and villages, there are plenty of storks nesting away from human habitations: indeed there are probably as many White Storks nesting on trees as on buildings in Extremadura. At this time of the year, the bill clacking and greeting may well be the precursor of mating, as happened with a pair I was watching at the amazing stork colony (city would be a more accurate word) near Malpartida de Cáceres. I took the photo above just as the copulation had concluded: in birds it is always an extraordinary spectacle as the male (in the case of storks, seemingly all wings and legs) manages to balance for a few seconds as it mounts the female.

Even more extraordinary for me was a sighting earlier that same day. We were in the Monfragüe National Park and enjoying the spectacle of a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagle. The male was sky-dancing, a wonderful courtship display as it rises in the sky and then closes its wings and drops like a stone, to suddenly brake and then rise again, repeating the performance. The female was collecting leafy twigs from holm oak trees, the finishing touches to its nest. It then flew in front of us and landed on a ledge on the rock face nearby. It sat and preened, before appearing to stoop a little. At that point, the male flew from a tree calling, its bark echoing across the gorge. Remarkably it then landed beside the female and within seconds had mounted her, his wings outstretched to full span and his bill facing downwards towards her nape. The mating took several seconds before the male hopped down and then flew off. The female remained on the cliff and preened herself again. I had witnessed this for the very first time and what amazing luck for the group of people I was leading. It was an exhilarating privilege.

Many plants too are in the mating game at the moment and around as we watched the eagles were stands of the exquisitely delicate Angel Tear's Narcissus, whilst not far from the storks, I photographed the rather more showy Hoop Petticoat Narcissus below. The landscape looks superb at the moment, lush with pools of standing water...all augers well for an outstandingly good spring for flowers this year.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Winter moves to spring

I hear them well before I see them. A calm, mild day in early February and the sky almost entirely cloudless. Garden chores have built up as a combination of wet weather and my periods of absence, and there is always a race to catch up at the turn of the season. I am turning over the earth in the vegetable garden. What a magnificent morning. I hear them again, the honking calls of geese. I struggle to find them and then, directly overhead, high against the bluest of skies, two skeins of Greylag Geese, heading north. Not quite perfect "V" formation, slightly ragged at the edges with two or three geese flying as outliers, but clearly on the move. Our wintering Greylag Geese  departing. I always find witnessing migration as quite moving, even emotional, as the annual cycle starts in motion again with the birds driven by a combination of internal and external factors: daylength, hormones, instinct and learning. I stood in awe and as I did so, just above my head hawked a Barn Swallow, singing. A perfect juxtaposition with the departing winter guests and newly arrived summer visitor. The swallows have been around in the village for a few days now, pairs checking out nests and males singing from the wires (see the photo from Raymond de Smet above). House Martins too are coming back to the nearby towns such as Trujillo and Zorita.

But it was the Greylag Geese that took centre stage this morning. And a few minutes later another skein was passing over. These Greylags are Scandanavian, arriving after the Common Cranes and departing a few weeks earlier. Our wintering geese in Extremadura are a quite a recent phenomenon. Traditionally the wintering grounds for Greylag Geese in Spain have been in the north-west (Zamora province) and the Coto Doñana. Extremadura was just a place that they passed over with barely a hundred or so staying through the winter. However by the 1990s, this started to change, partly because of further expansion of feeding opportunities for them in Extremadura with the spread of rice cultivation, leaving extensive stubble fields in the winter, and also because of the increase in the overall population of the species in Western Europe. In that sense, they are very like Common Cranes: adaptable and undergoing a big population increase. Today there are perhaps 15,000 Greylag Geese wintering in the central zone of Extremadura, with a few thousand elsewhere. I was touched with sadness as I watched them leaving, partly because of the sense of farewell until next winter, but also it drew a line on the chances this year of finding scarcer geese. One of the pleasures and challenges of winter birding is encountering a large party of Greylags and patiently examining the feeding flock, invariably standing deep in stubble, looking for a rarer goose amongst them. This winter has been good for unusual records, with species such as Bean, Pink-footed, Barnacle and White-fronted Goose seen.

I heard calling geese again and this time a truly perfect "V" was passing, but this time so high up they were barely dots against the blue. I blinked and they were quite impossible to find again, so high they were now invisible.  The first day of their journey to Norway.