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.