Martin Kelsey's blog on the birds, natural history and life in general in Extremadura
My daily greeting
Nightingale (Martin Kelsey)
Late April and I rise at six, which is well over an hour before sunrise. It is high season for the business and there is breakfast to prepare, packed lunches and organising the day's guided birding. But my routine is simple. Washed, shaved and dressed, I come downstairs and open the front door. With no moon at the moment, the sky, still not showing any glimmer to the east, is illuminated only by stars. Scorpio dominates the southern sky - slung across my view, stretching across my horizon. I always pause and take in a deep breath of pre-dawn air. I pause again and listen. Without fail, at the end of April there are always two birds singing: it is too early for the chatter of the conversations of waking sparrows, nor the Blackbird or Swallow. From near at hand, indeed just feet away to my left, comes the urgent, clean and full-bodied notes of Nightingale. This bird will have been singing throughout the night, as waking moments will have testified. Further away, but piercingly and plaintively passionate will be the lilting cadences of Woodlark. These two deeply moving sounds are the first elements of the natural world that I will hear each morning at the moment. Some mornings, at the same time, there will be other sounds: the tocking of Red-necked Nightjars, the even short whistles of Scops Owls or soft hoots of Long-eared Owls. But these are supporting actors at this stage of spring, and my three or four minutes of commune with pre-dawn Extremadura is held by two soloists of trascendential talent. I quietly close the front door again and return to the kitchen to start the chores needed for the day ahead, just as the eastern sky starts to brighten.
It was the second of March 2006 and the late afternoon light was just at the right angle to push through the ashen-grey stems of the dead thistles and reflect against the white feathers on their bellies. Their upperparts were a marginally sandier tone than the thistles that gave them cover, but the vermiculations of darker streaking on the feathers gave crypsis, blending their outline into the jarring, discontinuities of the withered spiky plants. Nevertheless, from where I stood, my back to the sun, I could scan across the slope where they stood. The flock was at rest, stationary, and I could count them one-by-one. There were 330 individuals all told (give or take a couple) and they were Little Bustards.
For a few winters after that, I could still come across sizeable flocks, but never much more than 150. But by the time I was helping with fieldwork in 2016 for the winter census of the species across the whole of Spain, the largest flock I found was 92 birds. Indeed at the national …
I arrive at 07.00. The eastern horizon, which gave an eggshell blue hue as I left home twenty minutes earlier, now glows apricot. This smoothly fades into the blue-black inky wash of the rest of the sky. Within seconds I hear the first bird calls, the wheeldee-eee of Crested Larks, closely followed by abrupt tics from Corn Buntings. Both are unseen, the pre-dawn gloam just sufficient to mark the open horizon here on the plains, and the proud outline of the Gredos Mountains to the north, but there is no contrast to pick out movement over the dusky barren grasslands. That is until a party of twelve Calandra Larks rise above the skyline, twanging in their bounding motion across my view. The combination of gradually improving light and my eyes tuning-in helps me to pick up the direct flight of a Corn Bunting, barely two metres above the the ground, no-nonsense and purposeful. A stocky outline on top of the chimney on an outbuilding identifies itself as a Little Owl. Its mate sits on top …
There are moments and places in Extremadura which take me far from the familiar dehesas, plains and Mediterranean scrublands close to home. Indeed, one of the profound attractions of Extremadura's landscape diversity is quite simply that. I do not need to travel a long way for fresh encounters. Yesterday through winter banks of fog I headed north to the very limits of the region. Just shy of the border with Castille y Leon, I took a narrow winding mountain road through the village of La Garganta, whose population of about 400 people live at an altitude of over 1100 metres, the second highest settlement in Extremadura. Many of the inhabitants work higher still, as my route ascended I passed smallholdings and mountain meadows, patches of forestry land, a goatherd with his animals.
Now well above the fog, I had a view westwards across the mountains of Las Hurdes and Gata, as far as distant Portugal. The classic temperature inversion was easily measureable: my car thermometer had sho…