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 …
On two pylons hundreds of Spotless Starlings bead the cables and festoon the structures, waiting for the moment to make their descent to the roost. The sun is sinking, the western sky slowly blushes like a bed of embers, as the foreground becomes increasingly monochrome and detail fades. Sound become as important as sight. Reedbeds always host strange utterances from creatures hidden from view. There is a satisfied rounded squeal from a Water Rail. A Purple Swamphen gives an explosive trumpet blast. A Bluethroat tut-tuts. Movement continues as Great White Egrets arc inwards, swirling on stiff half-opened wings to descend into an area of vegetation just to my right. Packs of Jackdaws noisily "jakking" clear from the cables and twist into the same area of reeds. Cattle Egrets are streaming in as well. The combination of black and white: Jackdaws and egrets, seems perfectly matched and assorted, echoing strangely the image of the earlier flock of Lapwings.
Standing on the eastern side of our drive, with the house as a backdrop, the Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum bestowed a breathtaking performance each spring. From its bare and twisted twigs buds erupted into candyfloss-pink pea-like flowers. The blossoming tree drew admiration and from afar became a beacon, networking as it were, with other Judas Trees that had been planted beside the old houses, that like ours, had been small wineries (Lagares) on the hill which became thus named, the Sierra de los Lagares.
For the ten-days or so of the flowering period, this visual spectacle was also audible. Standing close to tree, with my eyes shut, I would be wholly enveloped by the warmth of the sound of thousands of honey bees and carpenter bees, feeding well into the spring evening on the nectar it gifted them. It was like an embrace of sheer life and vitality. As the flowers dropped and carpeted the ground below the tree, forming rosy drifts of petals, the leaf buds started to open, a success…