Thursday, 31 October 2013

Distant Sierras

Red Kite (John Hawkins)
It was exactly two months since I had last walked this circuit and the immediate difference I noted was sound. Birds that were not here at the end of summer were now part of my soundscape. The gorgeous sweet liquid notes of the winter song of Robins, flowing like a caress from the undergrowth was the first contrast. Then the thin calls of Redwings flying overhead, impossible to find against the intense blue sky but the unmistakeable sound of these migrating Scandanavian thrushes. Quickly afterwards came the more throaty calls of Skylarks, another migrant from the north and then the weaker calls of the trimmer-looking Meadow Pipits. It was perfect migration weather: calm and clear and the visibility was superb. The Gredos mountains (see photo below), over a hundred kilometres away stood sharply defined and, as always on days like this, magnificent. The landscape had changed as well, of course, looking refreshed and luxuriant with fresh, lush grass. It is no wonder that autumn is such an important lambing season here: the sheep have recovered their form after the deprivations of the summer drought.  

The Gredos Mountains from the Sierra de Los Lagares
These are the days when the leading figure in the sky is the Red Kite. A scarce breeding bird, the population increases by at least twenty-fold in the winter with arrivals from the north. They become the most commonly seen bird of prey, with one of two somewhere in the sky almost every time one stops to take a look. Driving early in the morning towards Trujillo the sightings will easily reach double-figures as birds leaving their communal roosts head off for their morning patrols.

As Claudia and I continued our walk, Small Copper, Brown Argus, Bath White and Clouded Yellow butterflies explored the side of the track, stroked by the gentle autumnal sunshine, whilst a Common Chiffchaff, yet another winter arrival, called from the encina holm oak beside us. The view we now had before us was westward towards the Sierra de Montanchez, across expanses of encina dehesa.

The view across to Montanchez
It was warm by now, but the ice on the car windscreen this morning was another marker of the season's progress. With the change of the clocks last weekend, the afternoons are getting shorter and on returning home, the grate was prepared for the log fire. From now on the little plumes of oak wood smoke drifting from the chimneys of the dwellings in our village will be a feature of each close of the day.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Ephemeral strengths of autumn

Autumn Crocus
The timing could not have been better. A couple of days after plenty of rain the sun had warmed the earth again and out on the plains, on some of the barest patches of land, we were literally struck speechless by the spectacle before our eyes - the autumn bloom on the steppes. It was the patch of Autumn Crocus that first caught our eye: small and flimsy lilac-purple petals appearing as if out of nowhere. Getting on our hands and knees, or even better lying flat on the ground, gave us a long ground-level view down the slope of an old drovers' trail. The isolated  clumps of crocuses miraculously merged into a colourful hue, a haze of pink revealing just how many of these flowers there were.

As we silently explored this tract of ancient common land, we came across other species. What had initially appeared as a rather barren corridor of withered grass and thistle stalks, with an emerging green of fresh grass shoots, we discovered instead was a treasure trove of flora. It was a case of tuning in and focussing down. There were hundreds upon hundreds of my particular favourite, the Autumn Snowflake. delicate little white bells hanging down from spindly dark stalks.

Autumn Snowflake

Autumn Squill
Serotine Narcissus
Dotted amongst them were the tiny purple spikes of Autumn Squill and the miniscule Serotine Narcissus.What all of these species shared was paradox, indeed many paradoxes. They turn autumn into a second spring, they are at the same time ephmeral yet a statement of resilience, individually tentative and so easily overlooked, but collectively  create a breathtaking display. They all produce a shoot which turns into just a stalk and flower, in a matter of days, but with no leaves at all. There in is the wonder of them all. Their leaves grew in spring, where they would have been indistinguishable (at least to my eye) amongst the myriad of other plants creating the Extremadura spring. Unobtrusively they soaked in the sunshine, storing energy and nutrients in their bulbs. Their leaves withered and died back during the long summer drought. With nothing visible of their existence, no clue to their presence until the first good autumn rains, they then emerge to flower, a gorgeous conquest of their habitat.

They offered the only source of nectar and pollen around and attracted a multitude of insects: Brown Argus butterflies, pollen beetles and small bees.  And as we soaked in this special autumn treat, Calandra Larks chased and squabbled with each other, dashing in noisy packs across the grasslands whilst the first Meadow Pipits of the winter called as they passed overhead.

Sharing this experience with me was Derek, Zena, Phyllis and John, and it was simply wonderful to watch each person in solitary communion with this experience, in quiet and profound satisfaction. For Derek it was his fifth time in Extremadura and I remember his first visit when he told me that he liked to return to favourite places, at different times of the year to get to understand them at depth. And so he has been back to visit us, at five different moments of the year and with a broad interest as a curious naturalist.

Dragonflies can be excellent here in Extremadura in autumn and thus during this visit, we explored different habitats in pursuit. The vivid Violet Dropwing we found on the banks of the River Tajo in Monfragüe National Park. This plum-coloured species is abundant in tropical Africa and has been spreading into soutrhern Europe over the last forty years.

Violet Dropwing
Whilst this Long Skimmer is also a recent arrival from Africa and we found several specimens at the Arrocampo reservoir nearby.

Long Skimmer
With strictly no rushing around and with plenty of time for relaxed pottering around in different habitats, we found without any special effort a dozen species of dragonfly and nearly thirty species of butterfly as well. This first week of October had proved to be highly productive for plants, butterflies and dragonflies, with the birds as well providing an exciting supporting cast, summer felt prolonged the presence of a few stragglers like an Egyptian Vulture and Short-toed Eagle, autumn passage was at its peak with masses of Whinchats whilst the scent of winter approaching was marked by the first Common Cranes arriving to feed on the fresh stubble fields, their bugling call now becoming a daily feature of the soundscape.