Martin Kelsey's blog on the birds, natural history and life in general in Extremadura
A walk late summer morning
Common Redstart (John Hawkins)
The last day of August and after having been away in England for two weeks I am returning to a different seasonal feel. We are on the cusp here and today the signs of autumn were outweighing the vestiges of summer. I set off from the house just as the sun started to peek above the slopes of the peak of Pedro Gómez, the one thousand metre mountain to the east of us. It was already ten past eight in the morning - dawn is getting later. Not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky, just our pair of Red-rumped Swallows gliding overhead. I set off on my walk, a circuit of our own mountain, part of the Sierra de los Lagares, taking an anti-clockwise direction, first northwards and then around the western flank of the hill. The verges and banks beside the track, which had been such a dazzling display of colour in the spring were now uniformly dry, dusty yellow, carrying a distinctive warm scent. Only patches of grey-green Heliotropes offered a sign of herbaceous life. Occasionally I would walk into a pocket of cooler air, plunging as it were and here a relict aroma of Wild Fennel hit me. My progress had led me to north of the hill and from here there was a magnificent view across the dehesa and plains, to the granite outcrop, the berrocal, on which at its highest point stood Trujillo, its Moorish fort and medieval churches catching the low morning sunlight.
Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)
As I headed south along the western flank of the hill, I was once again catching the first rays of the sun as it starting to rise over our mountain, giving me a second dawn. This expansive terrain of old olive groves and holm oak dehesa is the habitat of choice of passage migrants that I was hoping to find on this walk. It is these species, above all, that tell me autumn has come. Birds that have bred far from here, in cool temperate deciduous woodlands of central and northern Europe, finding shade in the olive and evergreen oak groves of Extremadura before making their crossing of the vastness of the Saharan sands to spend a winter sojourn in tropical forests and savanas. My first encounter was with a Pied Flycatcher, perched on a lower branch of a holm oak, calling loudly. Just further on, a Spotted Flycatcher flew from its perch to the ground and then back. A Common Whitethroat became curious of my presence, coming through a thick tangle of brambles, peering at me with typical stance with its body tilted so that its back and tail rose high above its head. More flycatchers - my count of Pieds had now reached ten and there had been a total of three Spotted Flycatchers. And other migrants as well - Common Redstarts, Garden Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaff. There were local birds too, like Golden Orioles and Spotless Starlings feasting on figs, a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling from an oak and Hawfinches flying overhead. At one point, I turned a corner and found myself staring at a rather surprised Roe Deer - the first I had ever seen in the Sierra de los Lagares.
Booted Eagle (John Hawkins)
As I approached the house, completing my circular walk, the sun was high enough to encourage a Booted Eagle to start soaring and a party of noisy Bee-eaters circling amongst the hirundines, they will all be on the move soon. Not for the first time I was struck by the apparent, almost seamless ease that these migrant birds can fit in and become intrinsically, albeit temporally, part of such different biomes.
It was the second of March 2006 and the late afternoon light was just at the right angle to push through the ashen-grey stems of the dead thistles and reflect against the white feathers on their bellies. Their upperparts were a marginally sandier tone than the thistles that gave them cover, but the vermiculations of darker streaking on the feathers gave crypsis, blending their outline into the jarring, discontinuities of the withered spiky plants. Nevertheless, from where I stood, my back to the sun, I could scan across the slope where they stood. The flock was at rest, stationary, and I could count them one-by-one. There were 330 individuals all told (give or take a couple) and they were Little Bustards.
For a few winters after that, I could still come across sizeable flocks, but never much more than 150. But by the time I was helping with fieldwork in 2016 for the winter census of the species across the whole of Spain, the largest flock I found was 92 birds. Indeed at the national …
I arrive at 07.00. The eastern horizon, which gave an eggshell blue hue as I left home twenty minutes earlier, now glows apricot. This smoothly fades into the blue-black inky wash of the rest of the sky. Within seconds I hear the first bird calls, the wheeldee-eee of Crested Larks, closely followed by abrupt tics from Corn Buntings. Both are unseen, the pre-dawn gloam just sufficient to mark the open horizon here on the plains, and the proud outline of the Gredos Mountains to the north, but there is no contrast to pick out movement over the dusky barren grasslands. That is until a party of twelve Calandra Larks rise above the skyline, twanging in their bounding motion across my view. The combination of gradually improving light and my eyes tuning-in helps me to pick up the direct flight of a Corn Bunting, barely two metres above the the ground, no-nonsense and purposeful. A stocky outline on top of the chimney on an outbuilding identifies itself as a Little Owl. Its mate sits on top …
There are moments and places in Extremadura which take me far from the familiar dehesas, plains and Mediterranean scrublands close to home. Indeed, one of the profound attractions of Extremadura's landscape diversity is quite simply that. I do not need to travel a long way for fresh encounters. Yesterday through winter banks of fog I headed north to the very limits of the region. Just shy of the border with Castille y Leon, I took a narrow winding mountain road through the village of La Garganta, whose population of about 400 people live at an altitude of over 1100 metres, the second highest settlement in Extremadura. Many of the inhabitants work higher still, as my route ascended I passed smallholdings and mountain meadows, patches of forestry land, a goatherd with his animals.
Now well above the fog, I had a view westwards across the mountains of Las Hurdes and Gata, as far as distant Portugal. The classic temperature inversion was easily measureable: my car thermometer had sho…