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)