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.