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.
Early December in the hills (Martin Kelsey) Eight months earlier, under the softness of a fresh canopy of Sweet Chestnut leaves, the sight of a vast colony of creamy Barton's Orchids filled me with joy. Now, only a single wizened grey spike, bearing the husks of the seed capsules remains in view. It is exposed on a mossy bank, with the rest of the colony now hidden under the deep blanket of coppery leaves covering the ground in this grove. The trees stand dormant and a winter's silence now clothes this hilltop. Until a Jay screeches and somewhere through the trees a Roe Deer barks, making me jump. A frosty trail (Martin Kelsey) There is still colour in many of the Sweet Chestnuts and Pyrenean Oaks. I am at about a 1000 metres above sea-level and the temperature is hugging freezing point (but in the frost pockets lower down it was down to minus 4º C) and autumn just about perseveres here, although there is a distinct wintery feel to the birds. Walking along a ride, where the s
Alcollarín Reservoir (Martin Kelsey) A blustery late afternoon in mid-November and I pause to watch a large flock of small birds that zing like a wind-blown sheet pegged to a washing-line. They gather on the ovine-nibbled sward beside feed mangers in a small paddock populated by some ewes and lambs, under the shade of broad holm oaks. For no apparent cause, a "dread" sweeps across them and they retreat into the trees, like the sheet torn off the line. A minute or so later they calmly descend again, as if the sheet gently floats back to the ground. This woosh of panic and then calm happens every few minutes. Most of them are sparrows, both House and their chunkier Spanish cousins. But there are also Chaffinches amongst them, and where there is a large winter flock of these, then there is always a chance of their northern counterparts: Bramblings. I settle down with my 'scope to pan across the groups of feeding birds once they are on the ground. It is frustrating - it see
Sawfly Orchid Ophrys tenthredinifera : one of the most widespread species in Extremadura Orchids are compelling. Even the most botanically-challenged birders will stop to admire one in flower. Simply being an orchid commands attention. The name is instantly recognisable, sounds special - although how many will know that it comes from the Greek word for testicle, thanks to the pair of tubers that many orchids have underground? The flower itself is attractive, usually held aloft on an upright stem, gorgeous and intriguing to those curious enough to get on their knees for a closer look. Beyond their appearance are fascinating life-histories and ecologies. They have an association with fungi which provide nutrients and sometimes have highly-specific pollinating agents. The bee orchids are sexual traps that lure young male bees by pretending to look (and smell) like female bees. A long wet and mild winter for growth and a long hot dry summer for dormancy is what suits the orchids growing