Friday, 31 May 2013

Finding diversity

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 after in early spring as the cardo which forms the basis of a delicious and filling meal.

And yet even though the plains now seem to be slowing down, as spring turns to summer, just 43 kilometres from where I took the photos of the thistles, I took the photo below:

These gorgeous wild tulips were about a thousand metres higher up, in the Villuercas mountains, at an altitude where I had, in effect, travelled back in time to early spring. The buds of the deciduous oaks were barely opening, and other flowers typically found flowering at lower altitudes much earlier, were here at their best. The wild tulips were something very special however, the first time I had found them here. As we looked at them, the distinctive calls of Red-billed Choughs broke the mountain silence: a pair was evidently nesting in an ancient ruin nearby. A couple of days later, I visited another mountain range, the Gredos, a hundred kilometres to the north, where despite being at a similar altitude, the vegetation around me was dominated by vast expanses of yellow broom. Here there was a bird absent from the Villuercas mountains: Ortolan Buntings were singing - their rather simple far-carrying and plaintive song a constant refrain and epitomising to me to perfection the vast expanse of mountain terrain. Here too was a male Red-backed Shrike, literally one leg in Extremadura and the other in Castille y Leon, seemingly the only regular site for this Central European species in our region.

Perhaps no other time of the year demonstrates so dramatically the diversity of Extremadura, the variety of experiences, colours and species reachable within relatively modest distances, the ability to move backwards and forwards through the seasons, a time-travelling naturalist indeed.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Melodious May

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, but for some reason they only seem to take up residence in mid-May. I have seen Melodious Warblers in Extremadura since mid-April, indeed the photo above taken by Hans-Jörg Strapp, a Swiss guest of ours, was taken a couple of weeks ago, and superbly captures the rather brash, cheeky character of this bird. Their arrival seems to echo spring: I see them elsewhere first of all, and then sure enough, they are here in the garden, bringing a cascading climax to the tumble of changes that spring gifts us. It is a bird I am particular fond of. The reason, I suppose, is that their close relative, the Icterine Warbler of northern Europe, was a typical species in my grandparents' garden in north Germany. It was a species I thus associated with summer holidays and childhood exploration in the 1960s. The song is different, although I was interested to read of research about the northward spread of the Melodious Warbler and retreat of Icterines, with an overlap of their ranges, where hybridisation occurs and their songs converge.

Standing up from the vegetable garden I can look up towards the house, with the olive grove a bewildering mass of colours, a real wild flower meadow. Like the Melodious Warbler, bright yellow seems the dominant colour!

It has been a spring like no other in terms of the plants, with the unseasonal cold and wet weather that we are currently enduring, prolonging further this visual feast. Although the main period of the lowland orchids is now over, there are still some late flowering species, such as the Bug Orchid, occuring in the damper areas of the plains.

And widespread as well are tongue orchids of various species.....

In early May, I took Mark Ferris up into the Villuercas mountains for an afternoon, rising to 1600 metres above sea-level, passing through belts of decidous Pyrenean Oak, the buds of which had hardly opened. Above the highest, stunted trees, in the scrub zone where Dunnocks sang, we found the attractive Narcissus rupicola. At lower altitudes the narcissi had finsihed flowering weeks ago.

With Mark as well, I enjoyed wonderful close views of a newly arrived White-rumped Swift at Monfragüe National Park, whilst on the rice fields, where the process of flooding and sowing is now underway we watched migrant Yellow Wagtails (including a Grey-headed form heading for Fenno-Scandanavia) and waders such as Grey Plover, also bound for the tundra. I have been back to the rice fields several times since, and each time there has been a different set of waders on northbound passage...Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, even Sanderling. the remarkable thing is that in a month's time, there is every likelihood that the first returnees will be back, in the form of Green Sandpipers and Lapwings...through more and more observations, backed up by advances like satellite-tracking, we now know that movement of birds of one form or another (migration, disperal, nomadism) is happening every month, so surprises can happen at any time. I was particularly pleased a few days ago to find a female Red-footed Falcon (a bird that nests in eastern Europe), only the seond that I have found in Extremadura (the first being a male six days later in the month last year).