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Showing posts from 2014

Sunny year's end

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It feels that only now through the Solstice and Yuletide that winter is arriving, with frost now a regular morning experience and a nip to the otherwise gentle breeze. We are continuing to enjoy this long period of sunny, settled weather and as I stand facing north and the chill of the ground pushes against my boots, my back is soothed by the welcoming warmth of a steadfast sun. In front of me, gorgeously sheltered on placid water and no doubt relishing the gentle radiance as I am, are a myriad of dozing duck. Almost all are Shoveler. They sit, plump and motionless, the round white bows of the drakes appearing twice their normal size as the perfect mirrored water surface creates the illusion of a fusion between reality and reflection. This white form is then set strikingly against the mahogany brown of their sides and the black-green heads. The dressed-down females are mingled across the raft and almost all (ducks and drakes) set the same pose: hunched heads and their spatulate bills…

Rising above the fog

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In minutes my environment changes; colour has gone, the sky has disappeared and the temperature has plunged, even sound now is muffled. I have become wrapped in a cold and grey fog, so heavy that if I focus my eyes I can see each tiny droplet of water held as the mist, floating and gently swirling. The great land mass of Iberia with high tablelands, criss-crossed by mountain ridges and holding watersheds of large rivers, coupled with frequent long periods of settled anticyclonic weather in winter all make for perfect conditions for fog, sometimes extending over vast areas, sometimes in curiously localised banks.

The fog is more liquid than vapour, finding its level, filling up hollows, rising and falling like a tide, its defined border on the move as subtle changes happen to the air temperature as the sun takes its daily course. Where we live, on the Sierra de los Lagares, at about 600 metres above sea-level, we stand most of the time above the fog during these days of calm, without…

Alcollarín offerings

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My focus was on the two storks which stood at the edge of the water in a monochrome certainty: one white and the other black. The picture told a fuller story. The White Stork stood in the wet pasture whilst the Black Stork stood in water, its irridescent neck and breast suggested in its near-perfect reflection. Although a similar shape and size, the White Stork will feed mainly in grassland on a range on small prey, whereas the Black Stork prefers to forage at the water's edge, on amphibians and small fish. They differ too in their abundance and breeding behaviour: in Extremadura the White Stork is abundant with over 12,000 pairs with their visible nests adorning tall buildings and pylons, as well as the outer canopy of large trees across the region. The Black Stork is much rarer with perhaps 200 pairs, breeding in the safety of inaccessible rocky outcrops and on trees deep in woodland, with the nest  placed out of sight inside the canopy close to the trunk. Both species migrate,…

Sparrow surge

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I can only describe the sound as being that of a large wave drawing back over a shingle bank, like a deep inhalation of breath, sucking. It signaled an eruption. From the yellowing expanse of ripe rice, which had seemed devoid of movement, a vast shape emerged. The sound came from feathers, pushing through the air, as hundreds upon hundreds of wings beated and the birds they carried rose in unison. One's impressions of this heaving surge depended wholly on scale, With my binoculars, it was as if I had plunged into the mass and into a realm of chaos, with birds seemingly moving at random. Lowering my binoculars, the viewing thus unaided, the flock took a wholly different form, almost as if it were some meta-organism in its own right, Its shape was smooth, its movement fluid and there was utter harmony. As it lifted from the crop it split, amoeba-like and all of the birds settled in two separate clumps of small trees. Here these sparrows sat and chirped, packed onto every available…

Sunshine surprise

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Against the emerald green of new grass, the resting Hoopoe simply did not want to move. The comfort of this unsually prolonged autumn sunshine seemed just to good to pass by. And so we stood too, our backs also caressed by an almost penetrative warmth. It seemed as aware of us as we did of it, and for as long as we stayed put, it was simply a staring game. Hoopoes are with us all year round and from their repetitive song is derived their onomatopoeic name, across many languages and cultures such as Upupa from the Greek (used by Linneaus for its genus although he erroneously included because of their similarly-shaped curiously curved bills species like Choughs and Bald Ibises in the same family) to its name Hudhud in the Quran, This rather hesitantly-paced song can be heard here now and throughout winter. It is always fun to seeing a Hoopoe actually in the process of producing this sound. We watched one on top of the ruined palace of María de Escobar in Trujillo a few days ago, pushin…

A mix of seasoning

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The exceptionally warm and sunny second half of October, which followed two weeks of generous rains has brought us a landscape of special beauty. Extremadura's second spring still flourishes right to a Halloween climax. Not only have we witnessed waves of flowering of autumn beauties such as Serotine Narcissus and Autumn Snowflakes, ephemeral but powerful too as they symbolise the breaking of the drought, but the pastures are lush with grass that keeps on growing. Humans are readily deceived by the fickleness of seasons, and so it seems are many insects too: it is the end of October but  there is still much to see. Without any real effort over the last couple of days I have found nine butterfly species and half a dozen dragonflies.

Birds however are different. Most are programming their annual cycles, breeding and migration on day length. We have the somewhat curious experience at the moment of days looking and feeling like full spring, yet with an avifauna that does not match. J…

Waterside colours

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I could not take my eyes off its eyes: a calorific, almost luminous furnace crimson, round and compound. They were seemingly glowing and it was hard to discern a defined surface, it was if they flared. The rest of its body was equally loud, a vinaceous dandified plum colour. It stood, its three pairs of legs clasping the harsh-stemmed rush, its head partially rotated and then it had gone. I did not have to wait long for this territorial male to return and and there it was again, on the same perch, beside the same patch of still water. It was a Violet Dropwing, a dragonfly whose name describes both its hue and the way its wings hang forward at rest, like broad oars ready at an instant to push the insect into another dash at the waterside. It was not alone. From our position just downstream from a bridge crossing the River Almonte, without moving a foot, we could watch Epaulet Skimmers and Red-veined Darters, shifting in and out of the emergent vegetation. At our feet an Iberian Blueta…

Chip chip chipping

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There is a white wine freshness to these early autumn mornings, a clarity surfacing now, more crisply defined dawn wisps of cloud . There are fewer birds in the skyscape and soundscape compared to the spring, but this leaves the stage uncluttered and allows me to soak in solo performances, soliloquies. As I sit with a coffee at the edge of the garden, Woodlark song flows from the blue sky, never failing to move me. Its tranquil, sweet but almost melancholic lapping cadences lull me. Then comes the zany whooping whistles of Spotless Starlings, which give way abruptly to the mellow fluty warbling from a Blackcap in the top of the almond tree above me. I wonder whether this Blackcap is a bird on passage on one that has arrived to spend the winter here. It could be either.

The next performance comes again from the sky. A curious "chip-chip-chip-chip" draws my attention upwards. The sound comes from the direction of the risen sun and it takes a few seconds before the bird respon…

Late summer late dawn

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The sun has not risen above the ground behind me and the dry grassland in the immediate foreground still has a dawn gloaming greyness. Beyond this umbra, the day is already starting with the slope on the other side of a now dry watercourse boasting a golden hue. It is the end of August and whilst the days are hotter than they have been at any time this summer, the nights are lengthening. I stand in the freshness of a late summer dawn and it is almost eight in the morning.

I watch the parched meadow in front of me gradually change tone as the front of light advances. Then a distraction. From an unseen spot to my left a shape takes off and crossing my vision passes the massive silent form of an Eagle Owl. It flies in the mountain's shadow, low above the ground with rather deep but slow wingbeats, almost gentle rather than forced, but oozing power. It settles for a few minutes, again out of view in a gully before taking off to find an exposed perch, on the bank beside the very track…

Gleaming glossy green

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Whilst the herbaceous plants and grasses around it are withered and dry, there is an intense glossiness of its leaves, which appear gleaming and shiny. Somehow, the Strawberry Tree bucks the late summer feel, instead of seeming tired, there is an innate vigour, a flourish even. It always seems to be in the middle of doing something....the clusters of flower buds are forming, just centimetres from the dangling slowly ripening fruit. Now green, these will be strawberry-red in the the autumn, just as the gorgeous little white bell flowers will be attracting bees. An autumn contrast of fruit and flowers (see the photo above). The dark green, oval leaves which are barely serrated on the margins, also contrast with the rich mahogany-coloured bark. Deep bold colours.

I first met the Strawberry Tree when a student on a field course in southwest Ireland. The population there is the most northerly in the world and the species was described as an indicator of the Luscitanian flora. The extreme …

As the vulture glides

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Calm, long summer days, not a cloud in sight, nor the brush of a breeze. Against the vastness of the blue dome there is just one movement that catches my eye. Approaching from the north, the object moves on an unwavering course, a flight path on fixed bearing, as it were. There is no sign of propulsion. The glide lasts across my entire view of the sky. Its wings, broad but tapering slightly towards their tips, show no motion. Their shape are sufficient to identify this as a Griffon Vulture, and as this individual disappears from view, two others are overhead, again as if drawn by invisible threads. On such a day, vultures are finding thermals rising from the plains. Up currents of air, triggered by slight temperature gradients are somehow located by soaring birds: the vultures, eagles, storks. It is by the presence of such birds, rising in spiral fashion (described often as a "kettle") that we detect these otherwise invisible pumps of air, acting like vast elevators for the…

Moving around

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July misleads us, faking a quiet time, a balmy summery lull. Bird song has almost disappeared and in its place the electric buzz of mid-afternoon cicadas. The heat builds and we retire indoors, solace in the shade and time for a siesta. But there are subplots underway and understated. One signal comes from the referee's whistle calls from Bee-eaters. As they were when spring arrivals, now they seem again to be high above, in earshot, but almost out of sight. Difficult to pick out against the hazy blue sky, parties wheel, dive and swoop, as if whole colonies were on the move. Perhaps they are. They will be around still for a few weeks, but the sense they give is restlessness, nomadism, exploring the skies in search for food before the southward migartion starts.

More evident, but still far from dramatic, is the arrival of new faces on the rice fields and other wetland sites. Since late June a trickle of passage waders has started, first Lapwings and Green Sandpipers, now other spe…

Squeaks and Chatters

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Different sounds and rather different looking birds are now making their presence felt as the year moves past the solstice.  It is as if a switch has been clicked to a different setting. The landscape had settled some time ago into its summer lull, sun-dried grasses tall on the wayside and patchily spread across the unkempt pastures. For some this is an unattractive time of year, seemingly bereft of growth, of green. But for me, the harsh conditions, perhaps even unforgiving, represent both a challenge and also a story of life. We witness nothing more than part of a cycle, with the commotion and energy of spring subsiding as a spent force. Now is a time for fruits and seeds, for a slow reabsorption of plant material, through dessication and decomposition, back to the earth. And for many of the birds now the final chapters of their own breeding cycles. By and large, song has been switched off, but instead unfamilar sounds reach our ears, from tree-tops and shrubs: begging calls of fle…

A festival for our urban falcons

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June is a superb time to be watching our town-dwelling Lesser Kestrels. They are hard at work bringing food for their chicks in the nests. Standing last weekend in the main square of Trujillo with my colleague Jesús Porras we watched birds that were nesting in the centre of town continually heading out in precisely the same northerly heading. Although we could not recognise birds individually, there seemed to be almost waves of departures followed just minutes later by a return, which each bird carrying, usually in the bill, but sometimes in their talons, large insects to feed the young. These grasshoppers, giant centipedes and crickets would have been detected by the Lesser Kestrels during their hovering flight over the dry grasslands, now with tall yellow stems winnowing in the breeze. Loose groups of Lesser Kestrels, holding themselves motionless , each hanging at about the same height above the ground, can be encountered over the large paddocks scattered across the berrocal, the …

Sounds on the highest lands of all

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It stands as a great granite wall, across our northern horizon. Easily visible from most of the Cáceres province, the Sierra de los Gredos, part of the long mountain chain called the Sistema Central, forms not only the northern limits of Extremadura but rises from the flat plains below like an impenetrable barrier. The southern flanks of these mountains, which reach two and a half thousand metres above sea-level, are steep and from a distance appear dark and brooding. Throughout autumn, winter and spring, these south-facing slopes will alternate between being snow-clad or bare, following the vagaries of weather, so that in the middle of a dry, sunny winter there may be hardly any snow in sight, whereas just last week, they were blanketed by a mid-May surprise. Now, the sunshine is clearing again the slopes, so just little pockets of snow remain on the highest ridges.

Ascending the slopes, on twisting roads following ancient tracks heading for trusted passes, the familiar evergreen oa…

Big bang yellow

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It is as dramatic a transformation to the landscape as our autumnal "second spring", equally fortelling of the weeks ahead. I have been out in the field every single day for the last month, but even I have been taken by surprise by the swiftness of change, engineered this year by the catalyst of several weeks without rain and higher than usual temperatures. As with the late September greening, the place to witness this metamorphosis is on the plains. The grasses shot up in height in April, with the flowering heads of different species head aloft on tall, fine stems, creating the beauty of the rippling, sometimes almost upwelling, as the breeze strokes the land. The tell-tale signs were there for those who cared to look, as the stems, paler than the lusher leaves, gave the greeness of the grasslands a slightly washed-out appearance. And then, the leaves having performed their role, and the seeds now set, the whole plant turns a sandy yellow and suddenly in the space of days …