Sunday, 30 June 2013

Busy herons in the peak of summer

Purple Heron (Raymond de Smet)
We are now in the heart of summer...the longest day has past as has our village fiesta and the schoolchildren are on holiday. The sky is cloudless and the temperature is in the high 30s in the afternoon and will not be dropping below 20 at night. It is also the end of our main period for business, with visiting birdwatchers now very thin on the ground. We have had birders staying with us from the start of the year, right through until yesterday. When asked (frequently) when is the best time to come to watch birds in Extremadura, my answer is anytime from November through to late May - it depends what you want to see. This year we have had quite a few valient souls coming here in June as well. Normally considered a quiet time of the year for birds, this June bucked the trend somewhat with some exciting finds (see my blog of 15 June) and helped by the longer and cooler spring this year, we have enjoyed some superb birding. Over the last few days with my final tour of the season I have been showing the birds and landscapes to Sandra and Caroline. During their stay we started getting proper summer temperatures, so the pace of our days in the field adapted with the heat.Whilst most of the birds have now already finished nesting - the plains seem full at the moment of juvenile Woodchat Shrikes - one of the highlights of the tour was watching the broods of Purple Herons, Black Storks and White Storks at their respective nests. We spent a very satisfying couple of hours (and could have spent longer), watching the activity of Purple Herons (see photo above). We sat sheltered in a hide at the Arrocampo marsh, with a colony of Purple Herons before us in the reed mace. All had large chicks with their mustard-brown heads, jumping up and down on the nests, exercising their wings. Periodically adults would fly in, the young would start clamouring for food which the adult would provide by regurgitating the catch of the morning. From across the marsh the sound of the begging calls of the young Purple Herons would drown out even the song of Great Reed Warblers. Purple Herons do seem to have done well this year. I have never seen so many nesting at Arrocampo and the breeding success looks set to be excellent. We spent time watch the similar going-ons at a large White Stork colony the following day and in the Monfragüe National Park, where from one viewpoint we could see two Black Stork nests with three and two chicks respectively, we waited patiently and for long enough for an adult to make a slow and elegant gliding descent to land on a crag for a few minutes and then tracing another long arc in flight, to reach one of the nests to feed the chicks, looking delightful with their yellow-orange bills, downy white feathers and black wing feathers just sprouting through. On the other nest the chicks were a lot older, the bills now look brownish and their wing feathers well developed

These glimpses into the private lives of these birds were special moments and more than made up for the much harder work required finding birds on the now parched plains. Just to get an idea of how the landscape has changed, just compare the two photos below of the same spot. One taken on 1st May (when the grass is already turning brown, but the flowers were abundant) to that from 27th June.

The plains by late June are a much quieter location, hardly any lark song, but we did watch two male Great Bustards feeding belly-deep in the tall dry grass, two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over on their way to a water-hole, a male Montagu's Harrier was hunting and White Storks were busy collecting grasshoppers to take back to feed their young.

Looking back on the whole season, I have had the fortune to share moments like that with guests on over 90 days this year. Over that time I have shown people 210 species of birds, all but three of which have been found within an hour's drive from the house. It has been another memorable season in wonderful Extremadura.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The value of the path well-trodden

One of the pleasures of the field work involved over the three years surveying for the winter birds' atlas in Extremadura was that it took me, on foot, well off the beaten track, into areas that I had not explored before:  remote valleys and mountain tops, woodlands and farmland. But however exciting venturing into new terrain is, there is an undoubted pleasure too in getting to know particular areas so well, that they become, in birding parlance, one's local patch. Having a local patch is how most birdwatchers start and many will continue to visit a favourite haunt month-in, month-out throughout the year, for many years. Such is most of my birding in fact here in Extremadura. When I am taking out visitors, showing them our local birds, most of the routes I use will include places that I regularly visit throughout the year, whether I am working as a guide, or simply out for a few hours of birding on my own.

The value of these well-trodden paths is the intimate knowledge that is built-up over the years and seasons, a sixth-sense sometimes of particular spots to check, particular fields or shrubs, pools or copses that almost magically attract birds. They provide too one's sense of reference or benchmarks, both to the passing of the seasons, and also to the vagaries of changing populations. One feels different being an explorer in new terrain, compared to becoming absorbed, as it were, in surroundings which have become familar. And it is because of the familiarity of the surroundings that the sense of satisfaction of making a discovery, finding something out of the ordinary, is always greater when it happens on one's own home patch.  And so it happened this year, during a remarkable two weeks from the start of June, a time considered by most as one of the quietest times in Spain for finding something unusual. Let me share with you three moments.

On 9th June, I was taking out Don and Jane across one of my favourite drives across the rice fields, a route I do at least once a month, and sometimes every week, throughout the year. Despite June being thought of as quiet, it is the start of the major turning point during the year, when we start to see the evidence of bird movements that tells us that for some birds the breeding season is over and it is time to move south. This month I start looking out for the return of Lapwings from northern Europe and will expect to have seen a few, perhaps on the dry plains, by the end of June. Nothing quite prepared me for the sight of the flock of 170 that were clustered together on a muddy paddy field (see my photo above). All were adult birds, suggesting that perhaps they were failed breeders from the north. From now on for the rest of summer. autumn and winter, Lapwings will become an increasingly common sight here. Later that day we also saw a pair of Green Sandpipers, like the Lapwings traditional early returnees from the north.

Nearby, is the Sierra Brava reservoir, an area of international importance for wintering waterfowl, and always worth a check at any time of the year. On 1st June with Andy, Clare, Dave and Jann we dropped in there when passing by to look for Black-eared Wheatear. We found none and proceeded on the rest of our route. Later in the afternoon, we were nearby again and decided to give the wheatear another go. As we approached the reservoir, we noticed a single bird swimming in the bay. It looked at first glance like a coot, but something told us to take a proper look. Doing so immediately made us realize that this was no coot, but rather a first summer male Common Scoter, with bright orange-yellow on the bill as can be seen in one of Dave's excellent photos. This was only the third record for Extremadura. As a reward for our find, as we left a pair of Black-eared Wheatears promptly appeared in view!

On 10th June, I again was with Don and Jane and we were driving along a very favourite track on the plains to the west of Trujillo. It was an unseasonly cool and overcast day (winter fleeces in mid-June!), the advantage of which was that we could enjoy watching the birds of the plains in good light, without heat shimmer. Ahead of me was a big concrete gate post, a feature that I subconsiously check every time I apporoach it because occasionally eagles will use it as a perch. This time there was indeed a bird there, looking very pale and strongly marked. There was something very different about it. I stopped and we looked through the windscreen. This certainly was something new, a big falcon with a very pale head and bold moustachial stripe and eye stripe. I held the camera out of the side of the car and took a photo (see below). Over the next 45 minutes we watched this bird, initially perched on the post, it then glided across the track to land on a rock in a nearby field. By the time it had gone, we had seen enough of its distinctive head pattern, evenly barred tail and pale grey-brown plumage to identify it as a sub-adult Lanner Falcon (of the North African subspecies), a national rairty for Spain. Again the value of the local, familar patch and the joy of finding something totally unexpected. Indeed along that track (of no more than a couple of kilometres) and its immediate adjacent fields I have recorded no fewer than 21 species of bird of prey over the years. There is nothing that makes that strip of habitat intrinsically different from other tracts of land in the area, yet it is the patch of open dry country that I visit and watch over more frequently than any other. Indeed the wonderful paradox of the unexpected in the familiar.