Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sunny year's end

Shoveler (Martin Kelsey)
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 hidden from view. None are feeding, none giving that characteristic gliding motion, led by their bills which would lie flush along the water surface, seiving and sorting, the head and neck stretched flat too. At this moment, foraging is forgotten and all snooze, with just occasional itinerant individuals drifting past their companions.

Largely of western Russian and northern European origin, the Shoveler are abundant winter visitors to Extremadura. The raft of duck floating in front of me contains about 6,000 birds, of which I guess 90% are Shoveler. Amongst them are some Mallard, Wigeon, Gadwall and Pintail. Almost all are also asleep, save some sex-charged Teal whose excited clicking calls draw my attention to the sight of a flurry of males pushing and shoving to entice nearby females. There are other rafts of duck elsewhere on this water body and Shoveler also seem to be dominant in these too: indeed at this site the average winter count of this species over the last decade or so has been about 20,000 birds.

I return my gaze to the nearest raft and this time I carefully scan across the motionless duck. A few Great-crested Grebes stand out tall and elegant whilst towards the back there is a party of five Common Shelduck. Nearby, a brilliant orange-coloured head betrays the presence of a male Red-crested Pochard, close to which are bobbing, rather bizarrely right out in the middle of this body of water, a flock of seven Avocets.

White Broom in bloom in mid-winter (Martin Kelsey)
I pause and look around. There is not a cloud in sight and the pastures are still carrying the lushness of our autumnal "second-spring" bedecked with yellow crucifer flowers. As the air temperature rises, we are still seeing butterflies each day this winter whilst amongst the granite near Trujillo, and even on the slopes of the Gredos Mountains well above a thousand metres above sea-level, the White Broom is in flower, a display which we normally anticipate for early spring.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Rising above the fog

Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)

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 even the slightest caress of a breeze. The dawn is crisp, the outline of the Pedro Gómez mountain to the east precisely marked. As the day progresses under a cloudless sky, the temperature rises and I can be working the garden in shirtsleeves, yet down the hill in the village of Herguijuela, at just under 500 metres above sea-level, they will not see the sun all day and thick overcoats clad the people - such is the temperature inversion. Only at the ending of the day, when the fog creeps mysteriously uphill, are we pushed indoors.

The fog is striking at a crucial week. Volunteers across Extremadura, indeed across Spain, had scheduled these days for the December census of Common Cranes. Mostly the counts are done at the roosting sites, which by their nature (lagoons, lakes, reservoirs, flooded fields) will be in the hollows and lower altitudes susceptible to these conditions. At my regular site, a small old reservoir set amongst dehesa, the cranes arrive from their daytime feeding sites during the last minutes of daylight, settling in amongst the trees and then making the final part of the evening journey on foot to reach the shore of the lake. By that time it is dusk and even under ideal conditions, they appear as little more than grey forms. With fog the count is impossible. I am also counting cranes on feeding areas at even lower altitudes on rice and maize stubble. Two days ago I left home at midday, under clear blue skies, but within minutes had descended into thick fog. I pressed on since when in its midst, it is impossible to gauge its extent. As it happened, as I dropped height further the fog lessened: it was lying bound by contours and fortunately my counting area lay just below this plane. The light however was murky and my higher vantage points were being brushed by the fog, and I struggled to complete the count, recording 8,700 birds.

The same morning, I fitted in my December winter birds survey (which had been impossible the day before because of the fog). This takes me on a circuit of the Sierra de los Lagares, on one of my favourite walks. Along a small lane through old olive groves and patches of evergreen oak, I note every bird I see and hear on eight fifteen-minute segments - two hours of concentration. The exercise is repeated in January and the results from my survey, along with those of hundreds across the country are all then compiled and analysed. On its own each result does not tell us much, but over the years and from many sites, trends can be detected. On this particular day, my total was 640 birds of 34 species recorded, of which Blackcaps were the most numerous with 106 individuals. These are mainly of Central European origin, enjoying winter in Spain feasting on olives.

Gredos Mountains at the back, Monfragüe ridge middle distance: view from Sierra de los Lagares (Martin Kelsey)
One of the delights of this circular walk are the views it offers and as I set out on an initial northerly bearing, with the sound of wintering Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackcaps around me, I was gifted with a vast panorama. Under a cloudless sky, the peaks of the Gredos Mountains, a hundred kilometres away, were clad with snow, whilst the lower closer ridges leading to the Monfragüe National Park, contrasted in defined form with the mattress of fog enveloping everything below. Ten kilometres away, as if drifting afloat, like a ghost ship, in the ocean, stood the castle and church towers of Trujillo.

Trujillo floating in the fog (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Alcollarín offerings

White Stork and Black Stork at Alcollarín (Martin Kelsey)
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, although the situation for White Storks is very complex. Some of the Extremaduran population may be resident, some migrate to Africa, whilst in autumn and winter we also play host to White Storks from further north. Likewise whereas most Black Storks at this time of the year will be in Africa and we will not see them in breeding areas until the start of spring, increasing numbers are overwintering in Extremadura, and some of them may be coming here from central Europe.

I was standing on the eastern side of the new reservoir beside the small town of Alcollarín in the south of Cáceres province, which has been created to provide drinking water for local towns as well as supplies for irrigation. The dam has only been completed in recent months and since the end of last winter, when the construction traffic had started to lessen, I have been making regular visits to this slowly expanding water body, just twenty minutes from home. I have been fascinated by how this brand new habitat, surrounded by dehesa farmland and rocky outcrops and set in a wide arena of hills, will be used by wildlife.
Alcollarín Reservoir (Claudia Kelsey)
My gaze shifted from the two storks. Other storks (five Black Storks in total), herons and egrets lined the shore, including some Spoonbill. On partly submerged trees stood Great Cormorants whilst paddling around in the water were a range of dabbling ducks, with Little and Great Crested Grebes. The grebe population here has been outstanding: in late summer there were post-breeding concentrations of over 300 Great Crested Grebes and more than 200 Little Grebe, as well as double figures of Black-necked Grebes. Right from the first of my visits to Alcollarín Reservoir, I have never been disappointed and more than often surprised at what I have found: flocks of Spoonbills seventy-strong, an Eagle Owl gliding over the banks of the reservoir early one morning, a juvenile Peregrine feeding on a Black-winged Stilt....the site was proving to be a gem as a local patch and I felt sure that one day something really unusual would turn up.

As I looked beyond the storks to amongst the duck, I noticed a smaller duck diving. Most of the duck on the water at the present were surface feeders, so immediately I got my telescope lined-up to the area of water where this bird had been. It popped up buoyantly and instantly I realised that it was something very special. Its tail stuck up stiffly and its head had white sides with a broad dark stripe through the eye. Its bill also looked odd, appearing heavily swollen at the base. And then, just beside it an identically plumaged duck also appeared. there were two of them. They were female or first-winter White-headed Ducks, the first I had ever seen in Extremadura and indeed the first seen in the region for eleven years...there had in fact only been three previous records. It is a rare species of natural, shallow eutrophic water bodies in the south and east of Spain, preferring a type of habitat is is very limited in Extremadura.

Distant photo of Extremadura's first White-headed Ducks since 2003 (Martin Kelsey)
I managed to get some distant photos and then sent messages out so that others too could see them. Two friends of mine, Marc and José, arrived later that day and not only did they too see the White-headed Ducks, they caught a glimpse amongst the evening gathering of Black-headed Gulls an even rarer visitor, a Bonaparte's Gull from North America - the first ever to be seen in Extremadura.

Alcollarín Reservoir is now firmly on the birding map of Extremadura and in its construction there has been consideration made for both birds and birdwatchers. At the shallow arms of the reservoir, small weirs are in place to provide quiet backwaters for birds and islands are being created for breeding terns. The perimeter road has an excellent surface and good viewing areas for the reservoir, and there is a high viewpoint which will faciliate scanning the water body as a whole. Picnic areas and parking facilities are also in place to make the area as visitor-friendly as possible.
Alcollarín Reservoir (Claudia Kelsey)
Birds teemed in the shallows and as I left I did so in the knowledge that, as well as being on the birding map, this new resource has found its way too onto the mysterious navigational charts of birds as they move across the peninsula, offering us the excitement of discovery, that pulse that drives us all.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Sparrow surge

Spanish Sparrows with some House Sparrows (Martin Kelsey)
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 twig and branch. Suddenly an invisible conductor raised a baton and there was silence, like a moment's pause, before once again the sparrows rose as a cloud and plunged back into the crop. Once more there was silence and the crop bore no clue whatsoever of the hidden mass of birds, until barely a minute later the whole episode was repeated again: the sucking wave, the swirling form bifurcating onto the trees.

Spanish Sparrows (Martin Kelsey)
Almost all of these birds were Spanish Sparrows. If you look closely at the photo at the top of this post, you might just spot a few male House Sparrows as well, with their grey crowns and duller cheeks. Perhaps the Spanish epiphet is a misnomer. Here in Spain the population is largely in the south-west, but Spanish Sparrows extend eastwards in the Mediterranean basis and onward into central Asia. The Spanish Spanish Sparrows have their heartland here in Extremadura and they are doing magnificently.  The flock I saw was a modest one compared to others I have encountered. The irrigated lands of the Guadiana basin, through conversion of large areas over recent decades to rice and maize production, have offered new feeding opportunities for many species, most emblematically perhaps the Common Crane, which are now feeding in large flocks on the stubble fields. But the swaying swirls of Spanish Sparrows are also taking full advantage, and not just clearing up the remnants of harvest. The flock I watched were feasting on the standing crop and here there is clear competition with the farmer. In summer and early autumn, the bang of bird-scarers can be a common sound, although their impact is dubious I think.

Sparrow flock (Martin Kelsey)
However, the Spanish Sparrows in Extremadura are not restricted to this new agriculture by any means. A few years ago I spent many hours surveying the winter distribution of birds across a wide range of habitats, from river valleys to mountain peaks. Spanish Sparrows were the most numerous bird I counted. The billowing flocks can be found on the more traditional mixed-farming plains, where birds are finding seeds of wild flowers in abundance on the ground, and the same wave-like action can be seen with the flock in perfect unison rising to swamp a nearby bramble bush before descending again to forage. They are gregarious year round, finding in the isolated stands of alien eucalytus trees perfect locations for their huge colonies.

Like other sparrows, and families like finches and buntings, the fresh plumage following the post-breeding moult makes the birds look rather dull, with just a suggestion of their striking spring attire. During the course of the autumn and winter months the fringes of the feathers wear off, revealing the bright nuptial colours below. As the pictures below show, it is a vivid transformation.

Spanish Sparrow in fresh autumn plumage (Martin Kelsey)

Spanish Sparrow in  worn spring plumage (John Hawkins)

Friday, 31 October 2014

Sunshine surprise

Hoopoe (Martin Kelsey)
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, pushing its bill downwards against its temporarily swollen neck and chest as the bird forces air through its syrinx. After the utterance, the head resumed its normal horizontal appearance, like a fine hammer - the bill extending forward and the crest backwards, across a plane. And then the urge to upup arose again and down the bill went.

When not calling or resting, the bird can be seen foraging, making a rather jerky walk across soft ground, pushing its long bill, probing it, into the substratum. This gait, with its head wobbling backwards and forwards is tremendously engaging and no wonder our son, Patrick, as a toddler in India, delighted in running after Hoopoes as they waddled across the parks and gardens of New Delhi.

And it is an Indian summer, with a cloudless sky that invited us after the picnic to head higher still and we drove up a rough old metalled track towards the highest point (at 1600 metres above sea-level) in the Villuercas Mountains. The drive took us through mixed forest, patches of conifer plantations and sweet chestnut groves. At a bend in the road a party of small birds, finches, flew up from the ground and into the trees. There was something about them that seemed different. We stopped and I got out of the car to try to relocate them. Frustratingly they had disppeared into some rather dense pines. There were glimpses of birds in flight but extremely brief. Although out of view they gave a fairly continuous series of rather short nasal calls, not a call that fitted any of the usual species here. We stood and waited, hoping that they would reappear. We did not have to wait long before two or three moved from the pines into the more open Pyrenean Oaks, which were already starting to shed their leaves. On the branches we could see the birds clearly with their yellowish bellies, olive green breasts, greyish napes and bold double wingbars: Citril Finches. This was a major find, the first time they had ever been seen in this part of Extremadura. We watched as other members of the flock also flew into the oaks and then off they went, all together, up the road and disppearing into a belt of pine trees.
Watching Citril Finches (Martin Kelsey)

From the top of the mountain, at 1600 metres, we could not only look down on to the mixed forests on its flanks but beyond, into the distance to the green deshesa where the Hoopoe sunbathed, and beyond again, ridge and after ridge, with diminishing tones of bluish-grey in the afternoon sunshine.

View from the Villuercas (Martin Kelsey)

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A mix of seasoning

Common Snipe (John Hawkins)

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. Just over a week ago I saw my first Common Cranes of the autumn, a family party aptly standing, framed indeed, in oak dehesa. Within less than a week, there are now other groups arriving on the stubble fields to feed. Robins and Song Thrushes are in the garden, whilst on the plains Common Starlings are feeding beside their larger, stockier Spotless cousins. Wintering Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are piling in, as indeed are waterfowl on the reservoirs.
Rice harvest (Martin Kelsey)
To the south of us, in the rice-growing areas, harvest is well underway, but there are still many fields left to cut. This activity will be taking place this year well into November, prolonging the period of feeding bonanzas for gulls and egrets in the  fields where the stubble gets turned over into the ooze. Waders are present too, but the species profile is changing - dominated by those that will remain through the winter such as great numbers of Common Snipe, rather than passage transients.

Perhaps the weather does play some tricks on the birds, one is used to hearing the autumnal song of Robins as they establish and defend their winter territores, but today I relished at the sight and sound of drumming snipe, a vibrant buzz rather than a drum, and wholly unexpected, as the bird towered above me and then dropped vertigiously, causing specially adapted tail feathers to vibrate. It is a behaviour I associate with the hormone rise of spring.

Quinces (Martin Kelsey)
On our modest plot of land, there has been a glut of quinces, with many kilos turned to jam or frozen, but most are still hanging from the branches, now buckled and mishapen by their weight, or lie as lemon-yellow fragrant orbs in the emerald lushness of the orchard floor. And for the first time, weather and my time have coincided perfectly for me to have completed preparation of the vegetable garden, drawing wholly on our own garden compost, and have sown earlier than ever our broad beans and garlic for next year. There are few things that provide as much satisfaction to me as seeing the marker sticks in place showing the start and finish of rows, where hidden from view, the germination process is about to commence.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Waterside colours

Violet Dropwing (Martin Kelsey)
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 Bluetail damselfly quietly hooked itself onto a stem, whilst on an island mid-stream was the bold and outrageous Blue Emperor.
River Almonte late September 2014 (Martin Kelsey)
The start of autumn is when one is confronted by a dragonfly climax and over the last few days, especially when the conditions are calm, they have captured our attention. The tools of birding are perfect for watching these predators too - binoculars and a camera, and the patience to stand still and seek to comprehend their behavioural patterns. Gradually one starts to map out territory boundaries, favourite perches, even the differences how the males and females use the habitat available. Water is coming back into that habitat as autumn unfolds. The River Almonte lay as a series of disconnected pools along much of its course over the summer, but September rains have been generous, sometimes as deluges across the plains.
The rain on the plains (Martin Kelsey)
Rivers and streams have recovered their flow and great autumn transformation takes place under our watch. We call it a second spring. I promised my companions, Cyril and Janet, that during the course of their week's stay with us, that they will witness the very colour of the landscape change...within days the cumultative effect of countless green shoots has brought back greenness to the countryside and everyone is talking about it. And more life is stirring, on a gentle slope in an open holm oak dehesa, despite the grazing pressure of sheep, we came across the most breathtaking spread of wild autumn crocuses I had ever seen, a delicate soft pink carpet embracing the close sward of this open wood pasture.
Autumn Crocuses (Martin Kelsey)
A peak of equinoxal changes: the dragonflies, the rebirth of the landscape and throughout all this the quiet but massive passage of small birds pushing across the Iberian peninsula. Out on the freshening plains, moving amongst the dry thistles, pausing on fences, sheltering in isolated shrubs continue countless flycatchers, Willow Warblers, Whinchats and beady-eyed Common Redstarts, our link here between the soft temperate deciduous central European woodlands and their tropical African sojourn. There they will share habitat again with Violet Dropwings. Like several dragonfly species, Violet Dropwings have only recently colonised southern Europe from Africa, spreading northwards and symbols perhaps of deeper change.
Common Redstart (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Chip chip chipping

Booted Eagle (John Hawkins)
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 responsible has circled into safe view. It is an adult Booted Eagle. It circles low, a magnificent sight, calling continuously. Within my field of vision, a second bird appears and together they wheel. For the last ten days or so, this chipping call has been  a distinctive feature of the morning repertoire of bird sound, as it is at the start of every autumn. I am puzzled by this each year. These Booted Eagles (are they the local nesting pair or birds on passage from further north?) suddenly become a highly visible feature of the garden birding experience, just days now before they head south for their wintering quarters in Africa. Invariably it is a pair of birds, circling together, giving this short, repetitive high-pitched note. It sounds very close to that uttered at the time of pair-bonding and courtship in the spring......is it a means by which the pair reaffirm their bond before the more solitary life over winter? So far my search throuigh the literature on the species has failed to describe its role.

Red-rumped Swallow (John Hawkins)
The birds gain height and drift off, whilst Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins, the two most engaging of the hirundines, glide together in a loose pack. More surreptiously a Willow Warbler comes to bathe at the little pool I have recently provided for the birds. Over the last few days I have seen 14 species coming to drink or bathe, including migrating Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and Common Redstarts. Doubtless other species have also popped in the freshen up. The migration at this time of the year seems almost like a silk ribbon passing through one's fingers: it is happening under our very eyes, but by and large in silence, small birds moving in the dappled shadows of the shrubs and trees, a quiet tide drawn southwards across the landscape.

Pied Flycatcher at bird-bath (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Late summer late dawn

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 I am following, ahead of me. There it stands, attracting two mobbing Ravens, which it ignores. Instead it looks directly at me, its ember-like eyes in a fixed stare. I reciprocate. But disdainfully, it twists its neck, looks away  into the dehesa and in an instant it has disappeared into the holm oaks.

I continue to look at the spot at the top of the bank. Moments like this are rare and it takes a few minutes more to fully absorb the experience. Eagle Owl encounters are held in memory for life.

I was visiting a brand new reservoir, just twenty minutes from home. The dam is almost complete - with just some finishing touches remaining and the water level had been slowly rising through to early summer, but there is still some way to go until we can get some idea of what it will look like at full capacity. What has been remarkable is how such a new site has been found by birds. As the picture above show, the tops of small copses are still visible and strandline is still quite vegetated in parts. But particularly striking on each of my visits over the past few months has been the concentration of grebes (today I counted 315 Great Crested, 220 Little and 13 Black-necked Grebes) and Spoonbills, which have always been in double-figures. I am eagerly looking forward to the winter to see how the numbers and species composition of wintering duck compare with the longer-established reservoirs nearby, such as the Sierra Brava reservoir where most winters 40,000 or more duck congregate. Today there were just a few hundred duck, all in their late-summer eclipse plumage and almost all of them Mallard, mainly of the local breeding population. However, some migrant duck are passing now through. Yesterday I found a Garganey (see photo), also in eclipse plumage, on a small gravel pit, followed by two others at another small pool. These are birds on their way from eastern Europe to tropical Africa.

Garganey (Martin Kelsey)
But evidence there was of autumn passage today as well as I stood under the shade of a small holm oak to count the grebes. A sharp clicking call from just above my head came from a Pied Flycatcher, my first of the autumn. It was clearly aware of my presence, but also highly reluctant to leave the shade and foraging opportunities that this single tree offered. I gave way and slowly withdrew: it had travelled far further than I had.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Gleaming glossy green

Strawberry tree in flower and fruit in winter  (Martin Kelsey)
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 south-west of Ireland had offered a refuge during glacial times for species of a predominantly Mediterranean character. This story of its ecological history I found fascinating: spellbound almost.  I memorised its scientific name, which stuck with me ever since: Arbutus unedo. Its name betrays its historic significance in the Mediterranean region, for apparently it was the Roman writer Pliny the Elder who advised that though edible, the fruit is best eaten in small quantities: unum edo ("I eat one"). It is like a little round strawberry in both colour and appearance, but not with its bland, gritty taste. However, it has found its way into local gastronomy, but most of all is feasted upon by birds. Here in Extremadura it is also native and widespread, especially in the areas of moderate altitude. In the hills around us, it is common, usually as a medium-sized shrub, but I will never forget being taken deep into a private estate bordering the Monfragüe National Park, to a place few outsiders had ventured. We scrambled down a deep ravine, with exposed rocks above us, whilst below was a stream, which despite it being late autumn and still in the midst of a dreadfully prolonged drought, gushed with crystal clear water. A Golden Eagle soared above, but we were hidden from its view. The canopy obscuring its view was provided by the most magnificent Strawberry Trees that I had ever seen. We stood in a veritable glade of Arbutus, with a form as true trees rather than shrubs and absolutely laden with fruit. Pliny's advice was quickly discarded as we picked and enjoyed the fruit at its ripest best.
Two-tailed Pasha (Martin Kelsey)
The Strawberry Tree brings us another gift. The Two-tailed Pasha is the most spectacular and one of the most attractive of our butterflies here. Locally one of  its larval food plants is the Arbutus. Although second brood adults in late summer and early autumn will be especially attracted feed on rotting figs. It is at this time then, that we start seeing this breathtaking beauty in the garden.....although just infrequently enough to always excite.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

As the vulture glides

Griffon Vulture (Raymond de Smet)
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 these birds, an easy lift to take them a thousand metres or more. Not for the first time it challenges my earth-bound perception of air and sky, birds feel the atmosphere so differently to us, as a fluid medium, beyond the gust of winds to flowing currents. Reaching the top floor of the thermal lift, the birds then do the next extraordinary thing... they step off and enter the glide with that dynamic mathematical relationship between gravity and lift, a controlled descent, stretched for kilometres until the next thermal is found. The bird passing overhead may have originated that morning from colonies over 50 kilometres away and will have made that journey by this wave-like pathway of vertical rises and gradual descents - quite possibly the only time it flapped it wings would have been the initial take-off from the cliff, an energy-lite expedition.

Griffon Vultures are resident here, but that bare statement obscures the fluid nature of the population in Extremadura, much as we cannot see either the atmospheric infrastructure that provides the means for these movements. Sightings of wing-tagged birds indicate that amongst the Griffon Vultures there are birds from colonies from right across the Iberian peninsular. Griffon Vultures take five years to reach adulthood and between two and four years of age they show considerable disperal behaviour, with movements especially noted in winter and spring (there is a tendency for northern birds to head southwards in the autumn). These journeys will have been taken with minimal exertion, deploying the thermal and glide technique to save energy, allowing some of these vultures, along with other gliding species, to make the crossing thus over the Straits of Gibraltar as well.
Griffon Vulture fledgling (Martin Kelsey)
Recently I stood in the Monfragüe National Park, the source no doubt of many of the vultures that glide on their forays over our house, and watched what might have been the first flight of a juvenile Griffon Vulture - a heavy, unsteady, deep flapping took it across the river to the rock below where I stood. The close up photograph above shows its whitish, close-cropped down on head and neck, yet to be stained by foraging on livestock carcases. It stood, I thought, slightly perplexed - sensing achievement but uncertain of what do to next. After a few minutes, its mind made-up, it returned to the security and familiarity of its nesting cliff.  In a few short weeks, this bird too will start to roam, on glides that start a mile or more above ground-level, with a vision evolved to be so acute that it will search the skies for other vultures, processing this information and, now a master of its wings, tilting and flexing them to take it precisely, confidently to its chosen destination.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Moving around

Spoonbills (John Hawkins)
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 species today. This morning, barely visible in the growing crop, eight Black-tailed Godwits and over thirty Ruff fed and rested in the corner of a single paddy field. The Ruff were all adult males, adorning worn vestiges of their extraordinary courtship "ruffs", patches of different hues, some males mainly dark, others white, according them different roles in their northern leks. All had completed their reproductive roles and were on the move south.

Squacco Heron (Martin Kelsey)
This start of southward migration overlaps too with a dispersal of, presumably, local birds. At the moment this is clearly visible with the herons. On the rice fields too I found Squacco Herons and Purple Herons, the latter a mix of adults and juveniles, but neither of these two species nest in the immediate vicinity, but perhaps have come from breeding sites along the Guadiana River. Unlike the juvenile Collared Pratincoles, Black-winged Stilts and Gull-billed Terns which stood on the bunds, some of the latter still begging for food, which have all nested in these fields or on islands on nearby reservoirs.  This post-breeding dispersal and movements of herons was most marked today at another site, a brand new reservoir which I have started to visit. Throughout the spring there was a party of 14 Spoonbills present, but this morning as I watched Little Terns hovering over the water, a flock of 34 Spoonbills arrived and landed on the far shore. These I could add to the group in a nearby bay of the water body, comprising a further 24 birds. I wondered if I had ever seen 58 Spoonbill at one site before, certainly not outside a colony. They were a mixture of adult and juvenile birds and I could not hazard a guess as to their origin - it did not appear that any of them was colour-ringed. Week by week now the southward passage will pick up volume, a long-drawn out migration which will lead right through into November. The annual pendulum slowly swings back.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Squeaks and Chatters

Young White Storks in Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)

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 fledglings.

Wren feeding brood in Red-rumped Swallow nest (Martin Kelsey)
As I write, high-pitched squeaks from just outside the window tell me that the brood of Wrens that have been reared in the old Red-rumped Swallow's nest, are waiting for food and it will be just a matter a few days now before they too are fledged. The adults calmly come in through the open kitchen door, hopping on floor, flying up to the ceiling lamps in seach of prey. Rather more piercing "tics" come from young Hawfinchesm which along with a brood of "tew-tew"ing Greenfinches are feasting from the dried spiky heads of milk thistles, pulling out downy tufts to extract the large dark seed.

Lesser Kestrel young in Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)
In Trujillo, the Lesser Kestrel chicks are now waiting for their feeds from the roof tops. The pair of Lesser Kestrels that I have watched above a particular window on the old Bull Ring all spring have now revealed to all that they have reared a fine total of three chicks, all of them now taking short flights from the tiles. They sit waiting for a parent to return from the plains, beautifully camouflaged against the lichen-encrusted weathered terracotta. Barely visible in fact, that it is only when the parent approaches that their excitement overcomes their caution and the chattering begging calls ring out and wings flutter. Half a dozen or more adults are hanging over the building, and there will be some vocal contact from the parent to which the chicks respond. They must be able to distinguish mum or dad's call from those of their neighbours. Almost in the bat of an eyelid, the adult drops down, there is a scamble as the chicks compete for the morsel and before one can say "kestrel", the adult is gone, heading straight back to the plains for more.

Elsewhere in town, the young White Storks stand on their nests, their bills seemingly getting more orange-red each day, their legs stained scaly white from their excrement, but otherwise looking as large and as fully developed as their parents. It must now be just a matter of days before they abandon the rooftops for weeks of nomandism in flocks, concentrating in places where the food will be in plenty. Despite having started their breeding several weeks later than their cousins, the Black Storks in Monfragüe National Park also have large chicks now on their rock-face nests. The black flight feathers look well developed as they exercise their wings, even through the vestiges of down give their bodies a thorroughly scruffy look.

Black Stork chicks in Monfargüe (Patrick Kelsey)
This can be a revealing time of year when the finding of a fledged bird offers confirmation of successful breeding. This is valuable information, especially this year, which is the first of the four years' data-gathering for the next edition of the Spanish Breeding Birds Atlas. On my regular visit to the rice fields just south of us, where other signs of mid-summer astonishingly are the first returning autumn passage migrants and winter visitors (a selection of waders present appeared to be all adults - some like the Lapwings heavily in moult), a drawn-out call drew my attentiopn. Close by, beside a ditch was a juvenile Yellow Wagtail, looking quite recently fledged. It was joined a few minutes later by an adult male and they flew off together. This looked very suspiciously like a family and most probably birds that had nested in the vicinity. In Extremadura, the species is mainly a passage migrant, but this had been the second time this month that I had found juvenile birds in this habitat, and well outside the autumn passage period for them.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A festival for our urban falcons

Male Lesser Kestrel (photo by John Hawkins)
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 granite outcrop landscape that envelops Trujillo or just beyond on the plains themselves. All of them using every hour of daylight to meet the challenge set by their demanding progeny.

We were taking part in Trujillo's first Lesser Kestrel Festival, a celebration of these small colonial falcons (called locally Micales) that can be seen at the moment almost everytime one looks up, anywhere over the town. On the Thursday it was inaugurated by Trujillo's mayor, accompanied by senior representatives from the Extremadura Environment and Tourism teams. The large meeting room had a big contingent of local school children, many of whom had taken part in a Lesser Kestrel drawing competition, as well as the local photographer who had won the photo context.They were entertained by a Lesser Kestrel Rap, devised by Pepe Antolín who heads the ground-breaking conservation project in another Extremeñan town famous for its Lesser Kestrels: Almendralejo.  His organisation, DEMA, works on environmental education as well as installing their specially-designed nestboxes for the species. Trial and error has resulted in the current model, with obstacles to avoid the entry of predators, drainage to prevent flooding in summer thunderstorms and ventilation to reduce over-heating. The biggest colony in Extremadura in a single building, in the largest church in Almendralejo can boast over 80 pairs some years, almost all of which are now using nestboxes.They have a successful captive-breeding programme, based on birds that were brought in abandoned or injured, which has been used to establish, or re-establish, colonies elsewhere in Spain, as well as in France and Bulgaria.

Trujillo and Cáceres are the towns with the largest numbers of Lesser Kestrel in Extremadura, each with over a hundred pairs. They are among 18 towns and villages in the region with the European-wide designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs), specifically because of their Lesser Kestrel colonies. Extremadura boasted the very first urban SPAs in the whole of Europe.

Urban birding in the Main Square of Trujillo (Claudia Kelsey)

Standing in the main square, with groups of local children and adults taking part in excursions during the Festival (some of the children enjoyed the urban birding so much that they turned up on successive days, morning and evening to take part!), we feasted on one spectacle after another. Whilst the food-carrying Lesser Kestrels were clearly the main attraction, there was much else to see as well. Young White Storks were making short hops above their nests, the light breeze giving enough lift below their open wings to suspend them for a few seconds - their first chance to feel being airbourne. Packs of restless swifts zoomed screaming around us, hurtling madly in pitches and turns against the buildings and down the narrow streets. A Black Redstart sang from a television aerial, whilst a Booted Eagle made several appearances, causing angry rebuttals from gangs of Jackdaws.
Talking about House Martins and other urban birds (Claudia Kelsey)

We took the groups around the town to watch the four species of breeding hirundine in the town, making their nests from the goblets of sun-baked mud: the evolution of the brick long before human house-building (did the early Mesopotamians watch and then copy the techniques of swallows?). And we ended up at the Bull Ring, the building with the largest number of Lesser Kestrel nests, watching the waves of adults coming in the nearby plains with the food for the young. Barely did the adults pause to stop on the roof, so urgent their task, landing and scrambling in under a loose tile to their chicks. As we stood there, from below such a tile a movement was spotted. And there at the entrance sat a white downy chick, perhaps seeing the sunshine for the first time, with just the start of the russet barred flight feathers coming into view. It was the first nestling I had seen this year and it stayed at its porch long enough for all of the group to see. In a couple of months, that youngster will head off for Senegal, a journey it will do in a matter of days, to join other Lesser Kestrels in vast winter roosts. Many of the species we were seeing in town are summer visitors and all of them, in one way or another, using buildings as nest sites, spreading out to feed in the surrounding countryside, or indeed from the skies above us.

Looking at the Lesser Kestrel chick at the Bull Ring Trujillo (Claudia Kelsey)

Friday, 30 May 2014

Sounds on the highest lands of all

High in the Gredos Mountains in late May (Martin Kelsey)
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 oaks of much of our region are left behind, replaced by deciduous Pyrennean Oak, with large leaves of the freshest of lime-green. Here the energetic trill of Western Bonelli's Warblers resonates from the canopy. But it is above the tree-line, in high fells marking invisible boundaries between Extremadura and Castille y Leon, where one enters a landscape like nowhere else in the area. And late May is fine time indeed to explore, with the brooms and saxifrages in flower. Weathered granite breaks through this scrubby moorland, as rounded outcrops, or huge massifs. Whilst the occasional Griffon Vulture drifts overhead, it is the smaller birds which dominate visits to these montane habitats. And across the seeming emptyness of the open landscape, under a dome of intense blue with shifting clouds, the song seems to come from the sky as many of the species here fill this space with sound. Barely visible Skylarks provide almost continuous background song, and are joined by others making fluttering flirtaceous songflights: Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes, Common Whitethroats, Northern Wheatears and Bluethroats. All of these will be singing from perches too (see the Bluethroat below), but have converged their behaviour to suit a space devoid of trees, rising as the mood takes them in the air and then gliding down, wings and tails spread widely. The result for the observer is as if to be witness to a joyful celebration, like watching hats being tossed into the air.

Bluethroat (John Hawkins)
Many of these are species that are familiar at lower altitudes in Extremadura as winter visitors or passage migrants, but here they find on the tops of these mountains in the centre of Spain, a feel of what their conspecifics at much higher latitudes have continued their migration for, with climate and habitat bearing close similarility to central and northern Europe: the Northern Wheatears on moorlands or the Common Whitethroats in temperate scrub.

Whilst some of these montane dwellers have taken to the exuberance to songflights, others contribute to the soundscape solely from perches. The Dunnock here is a breeding bird from 1500 metres above sea-level, and stands of broom held Dunnocks atop the most prominent twigs, singing in heated rivalry. However, for me both the sweetest, most evocative, perhaps almost melancholic, of all the sounds is also the simplest of them all. Coming from small birds perched also on broom, but most often the outcrops of the bedrock itself, was a plaintive, drawn-out ringing song, that captures more than any other the sense of solitude and space that I feel everytime I am at these highest and loneliest of places. The Ortolan Bunting, its chin, moustache stripe and fine eye-ring matching the yellow lichen on the granite, I occasionally encounter on spring or autumn passage on the plains or even along the lanes near our home. But here above the tree-tree this is a common species, whose bittersweet song tunes in with the windswept freshness of its surroundings, within earshot with every pace one takes.

Ortolan Bunting (Martin Kelsey)

Monday, 19 May 2014

Big bang yellow

Plains in May (Martin Kelsey)
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 the plains are dressed for summer, where just the scattered trees offer a brooding green.
Retama in flower (Martin Kelsey)
But spring does not leave us without a final flourish. There is a big bang of yellow as the retama (Lygos (Retama) sphaerocarpa) roars into flower. This spindly, lanky shrub with silvery green fine branches is the dominant shrub on unploughed dry country. Visitors sometimes mistake it for the rather similar-shaped tamarisk, but retama is a leguminous plant, similar to brooms, with a tiny yellow flower. The density of this blossom is so high that the normally rather uninspiring shrub, which seems to provide as interest chiefly as a perch for Corn Buntings, explodes into a deep lemon-yellow (see photo above) in mid-May. The brilliance of the inflorescence, coupled with with heavy aroma, attracts throngs of insects, among them the False Ilex Hairstreak (see photo below) - their larvel host plant, the holm oak, never far away.
False Ilex Hairstreak (Martin Kelsey)
Whilst the lark song continues at strength, the birds of the plains are quietly busy, as the sight of Corn Buntings carrying food testifies. When not laden with food, the bills of these open country species will often be open now, as the birds pant to try to lose heat in the depths of the afternoons (see photos below of Thekla Lark and Little Bustard). There is little shade here, but that which can be found will often be the place of refuge. Invariably the Magpies, Rollers and shrikes can be found tucked close to the side of a telegraph post, perched on that part of the cable lying in a tiny pool of shadow.
Thekla Lark (Martin Kelsey)

Little Bustard (Martin Kelsey)