Martin Kelsey's blog on the birds, natural history and life in general in Extremadura
Bustards in the burnished gold
Great Bustard August 2013
High summer on the plains of Extremadura and with the afternoon temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius in the shade - and out on the plains there is none - the only time to be out is early morning or evening. But well worth the effort it is to be out in this landscape in early August. There is a heavy stillness, languid, silence, quite unlike the audio feast of spring. No larks or Corn Buntings singing, just the short flight call as a feeding party of buntings fly over. Everything seems in slow motion. A loose group of Great Bustards, scattered across the burnished gold of the dry grasslands in dawn light, make measured strides as they search for food. Later on they will try to reduce exposure to the heat by sitting on the ground, resting, stationary. Their stately gait is emphasised by their set-square shape: their neck at right angles to their long horizontal body. A juvenile Peregrine stands on a rock,but it is difficult to see whether it has prey, but I suspect it was out even earlier than me and is holding its breakfast in its talons. The sky is cloudless and the blue deepens as the sun rises higher. A purring bubbling sound comes from somewhere above me: Black-bellied Sandgrouse.
Black-bellied Sandgrouse (John Hawkins)
Their distinctive call is both far-carrying and difficult to pin-point. Just by getting a sense where the call is coming from as its source moves helps me eventually to locate the small group. They are rather pot-bellied, but their pointed-wings makes them skillful fliers, and they wheel and then glide down to disappear behind a mound, where there is likely to be a pool to provide them their morning drink. Across the empty plains drifts a buoyant Montagu's Harrier, a bird fledged this year with a shock of orange on the underparts. The building heat radiating from the ground gives it all the lift it needs to quarter the grasslands without a single flap of its wings.
White Storks August 2013
In several places bands of White Stork stand in closed groups, appearing to be resting rather than feeding. These may well be birds on southward migration (storks have already been crossing the straits of Gibrater from Europe into North Africa), roosting over night on the plains and soon to take off again as the thermals develop. I head off too, for my breakfast, and it is only then as I start the drive home that I realize that I have not seen a single Black Kite. This will have been the first morning out in the field in five months without Black Kites. They are one of the earlier summer visitors to depart and clearly this abundant bird has slipped away, unnoticed, over the last few days, heading south for Africa. Sometimes it is what you don't see rather than what you do that gives you the message of seasons on the move.
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.
The months of October and November are the most critical in shaping the seasons ahead. After the slumbering stasis of summer, it is autumn when both figuratively and in a real sense, the flood gates open. Or should - because if the rain does not materialise, the forthcoming winter will be filled with a grey despondency, across both the landscape and eating and gnawing into the very psyche of the rural folk.
This autumn people are walking with a spring in their step. So far this season we have had already had over four times as much rain as last autumn, with plenty more expected over the next few days. This figure is based on the daily rainfall measurements taken by my good neighbour, Peter. He tells me that so far this year we have received 635 mm of rain (which is higher than the average rainfall for London, UK). The result has been a feast to the eyes that could not have contrasted more with the bleakness of last year. Rivers that were dry until early March are already flowing. We…