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)