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)