Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Extremadura on foot

Marsh Harrier (John Hawkins)
I had been walking for two hours along a track across the mixed farming landscape that makes the plains of Extremadura so rich for birdlife. The path took me down beside a small pool. The view across the water was staggering, the surface was bristling with duck, almost all of them Teal, giving their sharp cracking calls. I tensed, not wanting to disturb them. Those at the edge of the water nearest to me, took off momentarily, splashing down again in the water after barely a few metres in the air. I relaxed, the duck clearly had no interest to move on. Those on the bank dozed or preened, whilst those on the water milled around, and the scene was reminiscent of slow-motion dodgems at a fairground, seemingly random movements, which brought back memories of smoke particles, Brownian motion and school physics. They were tightly packed on the water and I made an attempt to count them: my estimate reached 1600 Teal alone, along with other duck such as Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity at the other end of the pool and again a margin of Teal took off for a short flight into the relative safety of the crowded centre. A Marsh Harrier had appeared and was cruising low above the opposite bank, then some more panic amongst the duck as an adult Peregrine Falcon hurtled into view. Despite the sudden appearance of these two raptors the duck appeared quickly almost nonchalant. This must have been because the raptors seemed more interested in each other, rather than a potential meal. The Peregrine sharply turned and twisted, tail splayed as it mobbed the Marsh Harrier, which rolled in defence. Up spun the falcon, to gain height and then stooped in feigned attack on the harrier. I stood alone on my track, a silent witness.

All week I had been on foot in Extremadura, exploring different habitats and landscapes, with the purpose of surveying birds, but with the reward to making daily discoveries, insights and an intimacy with wildlife that only the observer on foot can experience. Twice I stood to watch dog foxes saunter past, oblivious of my presence and once I engaged in a staring contest with a Roe Deer, under the autumnal colours in a wood of Pyrenean Oak. It took me back to childhood forays, setting off to walk alone in copses, field edges and along riverbanks. I walked paths that were unknown to me, having just a map as a guide, some fruit in my pocket. On most days here in Extremadura, my walks took me across plains, hillsides and forests where I could walk for hours without meeting another person. But this was how I came across wintering flocks of Little Bustard, in what seemed unpromising terrain, or admiredthe sight of a two male Bullfinch, a rare winter visitor to my part of Extremadura, deep in a shady, bramble-filled gully.

One of many trails across Extremadura (John Hawkins)
The unfamiliar terrain added the sense of adventure, the light touch of a frisson of anxiety if the path seemed to disappear or my way was impeded by a fence. But such moments were rare - Extremadura is indeed great walking country with public rights of way criss-crossing the landscape. Many of these trails are centuries old, dating back to the early Middle Ages, when the guild of drovers, the Mesta, were granted rights to exercise their trade through ribbons of Common land, a network of byways, with a nomenclature designated by their width. The only challenge today is that many of the smaller trails and paths are poorly marked, if at all, which makes them very hard to find. Hence the impression that some visitors to Extremadura have of a landscape that is enclosed and inaccessible. It takes confidence to set off down tracks in woodland, and sometimes having to return after just a few hundred metres because what seemed a promising walk ended in someone's property. Luckily more information is now available on the internet, and some of the local councils have been investing in signposting some very attractive walks. I welcome these initiatives hugely, but much as painted signposts can reassure, I will always also explore those unmarked paths, exercising my rights to feel the personal reward of discovery and solitude.

Walking in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Children with Cranes

Boys and girls watching cranes
There was that magic moment, that first connection. Taking her turn in the queue, the little girl reached the telescope and looked down through it, who knows perhaps for the first time ever. The image that greeted her was a group of Common Cranes, unnoticed by her naked eye, she saw now through the telescope their plump bustles of drooping feathers at their hind-end, their slender necks reaching down to allow the bill to daintily peck at the left-over grain in the stubble.

"Wow, they are so big". I found another group of cranes for her to look at: "wow, they are so big" she repeated and then "wow, so many cranes". As children do she wanted to share her discovery with everyone and soon, more children lined-up  to peer down the telescope. How well designed are tripods, I mused, allowing the telescope to be set at the perfect height for the little boys and girls to see for themselves real cranes, in the wild, peacefully feeding in family groups and small flocks. I hope that the children thought themselves lucky, but I was really the lucky one. It was a real privilege to become the interloctor, as it were, between these most special of birds here and groups of children during the day who, thanks to their parents, were spending a perfect winter's day watching cranes as part of the annual Crane Festival in Extremadura.

I was part of a team of guides who, during the day, took out groups of adults and children into the dehesa woodlands and stubble fields near the Crane Information Centre at Moheda Alta, to show them flocks of wintering cranes and other birds. The children's excitement was utterly infectious. During a short coach journey between stops, the same little girl almost whooped with joy everytime a group of cranes flew past. These children and their parents would be returning home that evening thinking and talking about cranes, having seen many hundreds during the day, listened their trumpeting calls, and heard about the wonders of their migration, their arrival each winter to Extremadura and how they form part of the folklore and culture of peoples in so many countries.

The Crane Festival is a special event because it gives first and foremost an opportunity for the people from Extremadura itself to celebrate the birds which after flying 4,000 kilometres share the winter landscapes with us. Buses brought people in from towns across the region and at the Crane Centre itself, under the embrace of a huge model crane, visitors could mill around, visit stalls, listen to local folk music, watch street theatre and join our excursions to see the cranes themselves - although, indeed, throughout the day, cranes could be seen and heard across the skies above the Festival. I took part in the activities from the start - a "Breakfast with Cranes" which saw us at dawn watching the cranes leaving their roost to feed in the woodlands and fields around us. On my bus trips during the day, we stopped to watch cranes feeding on the maize and rice stubble fields and concluded each trip with a visit to the Cubilar Reservoir. There on the shore gathered dozens of cranes whilst rafts of hundreds of duck dozed on the flat calm water. Against the backdrop of the Villuercas Mountains we watched another wintering bird from northern Europe, an Osprey, circle the lake several times before diving down and then flap heavily away, fish in talons. As it found a tree to perch on to consume its catch, a pair of Golden Eagles soared above us, soaking up, as it were, the winter sunshine.

Cubilar Reservoir with the Villuercas Mountains