Sunday, 31 March 2013

Water, water everywhere

The figures and the contrasts speak for themselves. Last year we were lamenting because of the long winter drought, this year March is ending with a thorough soaking. In Spain, rainfall is recorded in litres per square metre. Last year 0.3 litres/sq.metre fell in March here in the province, this year by 27th (i.e. not counting today's drenching) we had received 144 litres. It has been the wettest March in 44 years and well over three times the average. The rivers are in spate and I have never seen the reservoirs as full as they are now. Indeed, I guess that all must be pretty much at 100% capacity and are releasing water. The ground is sodden and I am unlikely to get anything done in the vegetation garden for a couple of weeks at least. For farmers needing to plant crops now there are big worries.

On the plus side, after last year's dearth of early spring flowers, the landscape is blooming. As well as the sought-after orchids of course, there are many other gems. I am particularly fond of the tiny Linaria amethystea an Amethyst Toadflax (photo above), so easy to overlook, and so gorgeous to study in close-up. Even more unobtrusive is this little birthwort Aristolochia paucinervis (photographed by our son, Patrick)

The area of granite outcrops near Trujillo is a veritable rock-garden with an excellent show of attractive Orithogallum concinnum.

The wet weather of course presents a big challenge for the birdwatching, but it is a question of going out and hoping for the best. There will always be some reward for one's efforts. A couple of day's ago, we opted for going to a wet habitat to match the weather, to the rice fields where every field now has standing water, and the birds have hundred to fields to choose from. It was hard work, but we enjoyed the sight of a field teeming with Meadow Pipits and Yellow Wagtails, the latter all appearing to be males and with at least two subspecies present. Finding four Glossy Ibis and our first Bee-eaters and Collared Pratincoles was the icing on the cake. Margaret Swan, who with her husband Peter, accompanied me on these forays, came back yesterday with a superb photo of Thekla Lark (below) which shows to perfection its field features of the rusty-coloured lower rump, straight bill, greyish-brown plumage and rather stocky appearance. Like the tiny toadflax and birthwort, a species that may not be the most spectacular, but has its own special class of appeal.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Spring bounces in

The weather in spring is always fickle, but perhaps never more so than this year. In the last week I have worn mid-winter gear, with woollen hat and gloves, on one day, gardened in shirt sleeves another, sheltered from biting winds and torrential rain and soaked-in the sunshine. After last year's drought, we have enjoyed a bumper dose of rain this year and when the sun has shone, the beauty of spring in Extremadura has been breathtaking (see my photo above of the Gredos mountains). So spring has been bouncing around a lot, throwing at us a full repertoire of weather, but steadily also ringing the seasonal changes of nature. Some of the winter visitors left dramatically and spectacularly...

the exodus of the Common Cranes over the last few weeks marked by spiralling flocks and purposeful skeins, whilst others drift away, seemingly a few birds at a time - gradually the winter numbers of Lapwing are lessening. They are replaced by the spring migrants, some like the Barn Swallows and House Martins since January, but now each day new arrivals are seen. Today I heard my first Common Cuckoo of the year and saw early passage Yellow Wagtails, as well as one of my favourite birds, a drake and duck Garganey. A Scops Owl is now calling each evening and our Red-rumped Swallows are back, checking out the last year's nest near the kitchen door.

The rather cold weather of late may have delayed some of the flowers, but the first orchids not far from home are now in flower, such as

Naked Man (Orchis italica)

and Conical (Orchis conica).

They join plants like the afternoon-flowering Barbary Nut  (Iris sisyrinchium) which has already been in flower for several weeks.

It was on one of the sunnier days this week that I accompanied four guests to the Monfragüe National Park.

The picture shows how the river level is in the park, close to its maximum. As we stood with the snow-clad Gredos mountains as our backdrop, the barking call of the Spanish Imperial Eagle echoed across the valley. It was the female, calling from its nest site, possibly because she could see something we could not. A few minutes later she called again. Soon afterwards, the male glided into view and after circling a couple of times against the clear blue sky the sun catching the pure white leading edge of his wing, and descended rapidly to the nest, well hidden from view.

Within seconds, the female, larger in size and with slightly less uniform dark plumage (probably because she is slightly younger than her mate) took off and disappeared in same direction that the male had come from. We did not have long to wait until she came back, and then granted us a long view as she sat on the cliff and preened, carefully "zipping" each of her flight feathers in turn. Rested and her plumage in shape, she returned to the nest, and the male headed off, making a couple of mobbing dives at Griffon Vultures, before departing. Elated with our good fortune, we could hardly have believed what awaited us at our next stop.

One of the group was especially keen to see Bonelli's Eagle and despite spending time earlier during the day at some good vantage points, the species had eluded us. It was now four in the afternoon: not much time left. We walked beside the River Tajo, close to the wonderfully extensive mixed Mediterranean woodland that is a feature of Monfragüe. A Short-toed Eagle drifted over and soon afterwards a Sparrowhawk set off on its late afternoon hunt. Suddenly, at last, a raptor glided in from the south, quite high up, but the sun catching the pale body, contrasting with the dark underwing. It was a Bonelli's Eagle and with good fortune shining on us, the bird turned and started to circle in a perfect position for us to watch it. It was soon not alone however. because a fawn-coloured juvenile joined it. The younger birds was an intruder and soon the two birds were mobbing each other. The adult was the joined by its mate, the larger female. The youngster was no match to the combined forces of the established pair and we watched spellbound as a "dogfight" ensued above our heads. Sometimes the three eagles were close together, sometimes the adults moved off and then returned to dive-bomb the juvenile. Eventually, their strength and experience proved superior and the younger bird moved off. The adults glided off in the same direction, now without the urgency of pursuit. It was one of those golden moments, the climax of yet another memorable day here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Rainy day birds

Extremadura has the notoriety of being hot, dry and dusty...but that is not the experience enjoyed by those who come and explore the region at any time from October through to May. We actually get quite a lot of rain here (50% more on average than the annual rainfall of eastern England), but it is highly seasonal. Almost none falls during the summer and the wettest seasons are autumn and spring. The result is that for more than half the year Extremadura is emerald green and with the generous rains we have enjoyed since last October, we have indeed had the pleasure of two "springs" with a carpet of flowers greeting the arrival of the cranes last authumn and the glorious show around us at the moment. Mostly the rain comes as showers, but recently we have had day after day of almost continuous rain, with leaden skies and blusterly winds.

We have three wonderful and enthusiastic guests at the moment: a mother and her daughter from the United States and their old friend, the charming Carmen from Seville, 87 years old and like a little passerine, with a twinkle in her eyes. They had booked sone birding with me and over the last three days I have learnt again that it is always worth heading out into the field, whatever the weather. Each of the three days brought us special moments that will become memories. On the first, to Monfragüe National Park where gloomy weather advises us that few if any birds of prey will be airbourne, especially eagles. That was certainly the case, but we stood mesmerised watching an Otter and her two young playing at the base of a cliff. Whilst we watched she brought a fish, still alive, to the rocky ledge to feed the young, although they seemed happier to be frollicking over and around her. A friend told me that an Eagle Owl was showing well at another site and there it was sheltering from the rain, but in full view. My colleague Jesús Porras ( took the photo below just a short while later. As we left the park, the rain was easing and a very weak afternoon sun was attempting to push through the clouds. Barely present, it nevertheless gave the cue for the Griffon Vultures who had sat patiently, bedraggled all day, to spread-eagle, dozens upon dozens all panning their immense wings like solar panels, or sails, to dry out their feathers.

Foto: Búho real observado ayer en Monfragüe.

El búho real tampoco faltó de entre las aves que observamos ayer a pesar de la abundante lluvia.
En esta ocasión pudo ser observado refugiandose del agua en la comodidad que le ofrecía el roquedo.

The following morning, with the weather equally unsettled, we dodged belts of rain as we found a late winter flock of Little Bustard, with the males showing already their courtship plumage of black and white patterning on the neck, and parties of Great Bustard preened their wet plumage. And although the massive exodus of Common Crane had happened two weeks earlier, there were still skeins (perhaps totalling five hundred birds) moving doggedly in a fixed north-easterly bearing. The final morning the rain was pouring down as we left the house and frankly without much optimism for the day I took my guests to the plains to the west of Trujillo. But, as if rewarded for our persevernce, the skies brightened as we arrived and granted us the spectacle of racing clouds, sheets of passing showers, belts of sunshine, the landscape successively in light and shade. My guests quoted the start of the poem Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

"Glory be to God for dappled things-
for skies of coupled-colour as a brinded cow"

And so it was. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, yes too preening their damp plumage, as all birds seemed to be doing, as Golden Plover searched for food beside them; my first Booted Eagle of the year, forced to fly low against the fierce south-westerlies. Great Bustards standing still and wet. When the sun shone briefly, the intensity of the colours in the rain-freshened sky, the swathes of pale yellow crucifers beside the track, with purple sand crocuses tucked in at our feet. A Woodchat Shrike, again my first of the spring, moved from fence to shrub top, hovering briefly over the flowers.

We stopped at a favourite spot, high above a deep, wooded river valley, looking west down to the river pools, where a few weeks ago I watched an Otter fishing. Today a Kingfisher sat, a shock of blue against the green bankside. Again the sun broke through the banks of cloud, and almost on cue a pair of Short-toed Eagles drifted headlong into the wind, followed by a Black Kite and three Griffon Vultures. And then, as the supreme prize of all, a glorious Bonelli's Eagle banked over the hillside below us and then rose gradually to be at eye-level with us and floating just above our heads, the wind almost pushing it closer and closer to us. The sun shone for those precious moments, from behind us, illuminating to perfection the details of the eagle's plumage. But master as it was of the air, the headwind was no match and seemingly without effort it glided overhead and into the sun, a silhouette now. Within minutes the sun had gone and a belt of heavy rain joined us again. But what privileges we had been given these three days. To quote again from Gerard Manley Hopkins in Inversnaid

"Where would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness?"

 (Woodchat Shrike and Bonelli's Eagle photos by John Hawkins)

Monday, 4 March 2013

Bird Fairs

The first was the British Birdwatching Fair (now in its 25th year, known worldwide as simply the Birdfair and it remains the most important, indeed the benchmark for those that have followed in its wake. There are now bird fairs of different shapes and sizes all over the world. Here in Extremadura we have just celebrated our eighth. We were the first region of Spain to organise a bird fair and this annual event in the Monfragüe National Park has become the biggest and most important in Spain. I was at the first meeting convened to plan the event. The date for the fair (start of March) was deliberate. We wanted the event to take place at the beginning of spring, before the onset of the main arrival of birders coming to visit Extremadura when all of the local businesses would be busy providing accommodation and guiding, but still at the time when spring sunshine could attract local people to visit Monfragüe and enjoy the sight of the nesting vultures and other birds. Such a date would also make the Extremadura Fair the very first of all of the European bird fairs. And so it was agreed and each year since Monfargüe has hosted the familar site of marquees hosting exhibitors trade stands, photography exhibitions, events and fun activities for the whole family. See the photo above by Birding in Extremadura.

This year the fair was bigger and better than ever with exhibitors from across Spain and Portugal and lectures from special guests from UK, Sweden, France and Chile. Organised by the Extremadura Tourist Board, special attention was  made to provide good networking opportunities between local businesses and guests from overseas, creating an excellent space for information sharing and exchange.

The Extremadura Birdwatching Fair (or FIO in Spanish, standing for Feria Internacional de Turismo Ornitológico) also this year gave a special place for the new Birding in Extremadura Club to show its credentials. This was launched at last year's British Birdfair and is an important and innovative initiative that brings together the private and public sectors in Extremadura concerned with birds and birdwatching. We know that every year more than 17,000 people come to Extremadura to watch birds and of those, the vast majority of foreign birders (86%) make their own arrangements, rather than travelling in organised groups. The Birding in Extremadura Club was created especially for those people in mind. It helps the visitor to access information and make contact with the best birding servcies (accommodation, guides, information centres etc) based in Extremadura. This means that visitors can now plan their holidays more easily, knowing that they are in touch with high quality, reliable and professional services. Partners of the Birding in Extremadura Club are all fully professional, legally-operating quality businesses and services for birders and you can find out who they are by visiting the Birding in Extremadura website ( or simply checking that who you making your accommodation or guiding services with show the Birding in Extremadura Club kitemark on their websites, on the front of their guesthouses or on their vehicles:

Extremadura has long been a pioneer of birdwatching holidays in Spain, being the first part of Spain to exhibit at the British Birdfair, to having its own Birdfair and its own Product Club for birding, it is also the only region of Spain with a professional association of birding and nature guides (, which is another place where you can find the best and most experienced Extremadura-based guides to help you get the very best of your visits, indeed to get the best of birding in Extremadura.