Wednesday, 23 December 2015


Dehesa sunset (Martin Kelsey)
Springtime weather in deep mid-winter, barely any rain for weeks but swathes of yellow crucifers in flower, a flavour of February indeed, coating the ground of the olive groves. In places even Gum Cistus has been bearing flowers, not to be expected until well into spring.  Tree frogs give their slow, measured grating croaks, unseasonally vocal. A confused and messed-up December it seems. The Barn Swallows I saw a week ago, hawking in the bands of sunshine across a placid pool are most likely to be overwintering birds: there are always a few lingerers right through winter, House Martins as well, and it will another four or five weeks until we start seeing genuine arrivals. A Yellow Wagtail we saw last week was a surprise, and most likely too an overwintering bird. But the adult Great Spotted Cuckoo seen this afternoon by a friend nearby must surely be an early migrant. It predates my first ever by ten days (and equals the earliest ever recorded). This is a species that leaves early (few remain beyond July) and has never been recorded here in the autumn.

And yet the recognisable features of December in Extremadura are plain to see and measurable by the milestones I have in place. The first of the winter crane counts took place last week and I spent the morning on my circuit: a slow-paced two hours meander through an astonishing diversity of habitats: stubble fields of rice and maize, wet muddy fields, winter wheat, dehesas, pastures, a reservoir and the edge of pseudosteppe. Each time I found flocks of Common Crane they were counted and their habitat noted. By the end of the morning I had seen over 4,300 birds. Their favoured stubble fields were also the haunts of parties of wintering Grey Lag Geese, one of which also had three Greater White-fronted Geese present as well, much rarer visitors here. Later that day, as the sun set through the near symmetrical architecture of the oaks in dehesa, I counted over 500 cranes flying into a roosting site, in three large bands, their bugling heralding their appearance over the tree-tops.

Two days later I am undertaking my routine twice-winter survey walk through the olives groves close to home. Rising fog impedes visibility slightly, but most of the birds are detected by sound. In two hours 635 encounters take place with a total of 34 species, with Blackcaps being by far the most numerous, 127 in total - wintering birds, attracted along with the Song Thrushes to the heavily ripe olives. Resident birds too like Hawfinches and Azure-winged Magpies feast on these high-energy fruits. A few weeks ago, whilst enjoying a picnic lunch nearby, we watched a large but loose group of Azure-winged Magpies, flying through the open dehesa with their characteristic undulating flight, defining shallow, long arcs and all in a single direction. These birds were truly driven by a purpose, for within five minutes, they reappeared, this time all heading in the diametrically opposite direction, and every one was carrying an olive in its bill, all returning from a group foray in the neighbouring olive field.

Azure-winged Magpies (John Hawkins)

Friday, 18 December 2015

Vulture nuptials

Adult Griffon Vulture (Martin Kelsey)
The Griffon Vultures were busy. As we stood before the vertical strata of quartzites at the Portilla del Tiétar in the magical Monfragüe National Park,  two dominant impressions started to pull on our senses. First the purposeful movement of Griffon Vultures, which was a striking contrast to their loafing behaviour as we arrived. Then the very border of the rockface was marked by hunched figures, perched vultures which, reptile-like, appeared to need to draw on the winter morning sun's insipid warmth. Slowly some spread their wings and tilted carefully to maximise their exposure to this energy. A few then rose, seemingly without effort, to rise in the fluid currents developing in the air, a medium of gradients and forces invisible to human perception. But most when taking off headed in a level, flapping flight to the hillside. This directed our attention there, andwe could see numbers of vultures dotted on the grassy slopes, hopping towards the wisps of retama bushes, whilst others had settled in the sturdy encina oaks.  There they tugged and grappled and minutes later, with the same detemined flight path in reverse, they approached the cliff with foliage-covered branches in their bills. Their legs dropped down, the flight braked and with amazing accuracy, perfected a landing precisely  on a small ledge where an untidy platform of twigs lay and their mate stood to guard.

The second sensual impression was an assault of sound, a wheezing, baying and moaning which echoed across the small gorge. Unlike the barrage of sound typical of seabird colonies, this could be pinpointed to specific locations. There one beheld the spectacle of vigorous copulation between these massive birds. The male perched on top of the female, their tails swivelled to ensure the meeting of cloacas, This was not the split-second flurry typical of most birds. It was a heaving noisy union which lasted impressively close to a minute.

Mid-December and the breeding season of the Griffon Vultures was already underway. Indeed as we scanned the gorgeous architecture of these ancient rocks, we found at least one pair of birds where whilst one stood the other was sitting tight on the nest, apparently already incubating their single egg. My friend, Ángel Sanchez, who is a senior conservationist in the government of Extremadura, as well as being an excellent ecologist and naturalist, has described the fascinating ecological differences that drive the different breeding cycles of our two largest carrion feeders: the Griffon and Black Vultures. Griffon Vultures feed on the carcases of large herbivores, be they wild (deer or boar) or livestock such as sheep or cattle. For these species the mortality rates are highest in late summer to early winter. Black Vultures, on the other hand, nesting in trees and colonial in only a very loose way, and tending to be more solitary by nature, evolved to feed on smaller prey, especially rabbits. On a visit this week to the Lacañada Hide where animal remains had been laid out to lure-in vultures, it was the Griffons which poured in like a frenzied scrum to disintegrate a whole carcase in minutes, whilst the Black Vultures moved in to feed on the scattered remains and morsels that the Griffon Vultures had disregarded.
Black and Griffon Vultures (Martin Kelsey)
Rabbit mortality is higher in the spring, thus Black Vulture breeding activity occurs much later than that of the their cousins. Human activity is changing this relationship as the vulture species benefit from both the increased number of livestock grazing on the vast tracks of Extrenadura's pseudosteppes and dehesas and the intensification of large hunting estates, where it is estimated that during autumn and winter a thousand tonnes of animal remains from deer and boar are consumed by vultures, more than a third of their annual requirement. This, Ángel says, is underwriting the needs of the Griffon Vultures at the onset of their breeding and substituting for the diminishing rabbit populations for the Black Vultures. Hence the remarkable increase in the population sizes of both species, especially dramatic in the case of Black Vultures which in forty years have increased from about 90 to over 900 pairs in Extremadura, with concentrations in the Monfragüe region and the Sierra de San Pedro.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Golden bands

Golden browns in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)
Standing at 1600 metres above sea-level on an early November was calm, the sun was shining....shirt-sleeves weather. Indeed, only the bronzed bands of autumnal colours betrayed the season, and as we had ascended to this peak, so we had travelled, as it were, through weeks of flux, the slow shut-down of the fall. That morning we had stood beside the ruin of an old mill, listening to the gurgle of water hidden from view behind a tangle of bramble. The poplars and alders beside the stream stood tall and clothed in leaves that barely were tinged yellow, whilst the rounded guarled fig tree beside the building was still heavily clad with lime-green foliage. A party of wintering Siskins emerged from their dangling foraging, stretching to reach the small, corrugated alder cones, whilst a Firecrest restlessly shifted through the nearby evergreen holm oak,

Old Mill near Guadalupe (Martin Kelsey)
We then took the track that moved serpent-like through wooded hillsides. Still-green maples contrasted with the brilliant gold of sweet chestnut and the russet-brown Pyrenean oaks. As we gained height, so the oaks became smaller and the initial shock of bronze on the leaves graduated to a more weary dull brown. Higher still, with branches dressed by folds of grey lichens, the very tops of each tree were now within touching distance and only the most stubborn, now tatty, leaves remained. In less than half of hour's slow ascent we had advanced a month, from the cusp of autumn to the entrance of winter.

From the peak of the Villuercas Mountains, looking north we could see the sweeping series of valleys and ridges, the products of fold and thrust that pushed these slates and quartzites, metamorphized sandstones dating back over 450 million years, into a quite breathtaking panorama of gigantic ripples. Each valley struck a perfect curve, smoothed and rounded, rising to a splinter of ridges, jagged vertical strata, like white horses atop turbulent waves. Breaking the wooded slopes were expanses of broken ground, a litter of rubble, like gigantic scree, boulders that had tumbled from the cracked torn strata as ice over the millenia had pushed open tiny fissures. The landscape before us has been described as one of the finest examples of Appalachian relief this side of the Atlantic and deservedly has been designated as part of the Global Geopark network of UNESCO.  Countless times I have paused where I was standing that day and without fail, sought a moment's silence in solemn respect to the poetry of this landform and tried to comprehend the forces that pushed these rocks into these rolling wavescape.

UNESCO Global Geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara (Martin Kelsey)
At the summit the vertical reach of the strata was even more obvious, metre-thick layers, rising upwards, 90 degrees from their norm, creating sides of the outcrops that were utterly smoothed, with the tops of the crags in steps, leaping from one plane of strata to the next. Focusing in from the landscape to the surface of the rockface, there was a gallery of lichens, patchwork quilt-like in the mixture of colours and textures. And there, amongst the stillness of the moment, a movement. A bird had passed from the small ledge and slowly was working up the near vertical surface of the adjacent strata. Amongst the lichens, its largely grey, rather finely marked plumage was well camouflaged. Only when it turned, did the russet of its flanks come into view, a recall of the colours of the oaks five hundred metres below us. It was an Alpine Accentor and soon others came into view, making short rattling calls as they flew in to the spot, materialising before our eyes as a small wintering flock, perhaps nine birds, but never all in view, as they climbed and shuffled around the ancient rocks.

Alpine Accentor on lichen and quartzite (Martin Kelsey)

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Tilled and tidied

My huerto (Martin Kelsey)

I confess that too often it takes second place and suffers an inevitable neglect. But there are few places that give me such a sense of satisfaction as my little vegetable garden, my huerto. Lying just in view from our main gate, at the base of the slope carrying our olives and beside the ancient pond, is my fenced-off plot, probably well less than half the size of a standard British allotment (which is ten poles - a wonderful old measure dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and about 250 square metres). It is in summer when my visits are daily: each evening to check the irrigation for the tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. As winter approaches, the peppers are still prolific and tomatoes hang from their vines. But now, as in early spring, is the time for the major tasks. But opportunities are scarce. On days of fine weather weather there will be the competition with the allure of exploring further afield, often with guests, finding birds and other wildlife in woodland, plains, the rice fields and mountains. But I will have to find days, like yesterday, when it is fine and the sun is shining, with the soil recovered enough from earlier rains, but with the prospect of wet days ahead. It was now or never.

My task was to fork in the manure from our chickens into as much of the plot as possible and follow that with the sowing of broad beans and planting of garlic. The latter job was a tad bit on the early side to do, but looking ahead over a busy month ahead, I could not be sure of otherwise getting the garlic in before mid-winter. The soil was in perfect condition to dig and it took less time than I had expected to have forked over the whole plot, save where the tomatoes and peppers still stood (that I will leave for later) and the portion holding rows of spring brassicas.  As I left the huerto at the close of the afternoon, two rows of garlic and four rows of broad beans were settled-in in the freshly dug soil, I had picked some peppers and the cabbages had been hoed. There was a fundamental sense of creating stepping stones in time: the large beans placed in the ground, waiting for the emergence of their germinating shoots in a few weeks time, checking their growth in early spring, picking the large pods in early May, shelling and freezing the anticipated kilos of beans for eating.

My love of growing vegetables is almost as long as that of my feelings about nature and it was my father that got me hooked. I especially remember though on long summer holidays to my maternal grandparents' smallholding, understanding the sense of rotation and annual cycles and the appreciation that with a wise choice of plants grown and careful storage, one could be almost self-sufficent. For them this was not the result of indulging in a lifestyle choice, this was from necessity and tradition in a small rural community. It was John Seymour who wrote that small well-looked-after cottage gardens produced vegetables every year over centuries.  It hit an almost romantic nerve in me: a total admiration of what care and nurturing could yield from the soil. I spent six months after leaving school working on a smallholding in Wales where my responsibilities were the vegetables and hand-milking their Welsh Black cow, whose name was Brenda.

There on that Welsh hillside, a pause from the task gave me the chance to watch Common Redstarts in the sessile oaks, or Buzzards soaring over the magnificence of the Welsh marches. Here too in my huerto in Extremadura there is always reward too. A Cetti's Warbler sang as I worked and overhead drifted Griffon Vultures and a wintering Red Kite. Without any particular effort, I have found no fewer than ten species of amphibians and reptiles in the vegetable garden over the years, as well as relishing other distractions from Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Hawfinches to Golden Eagles and Black Storks.  It is simply another gifted chance to be outdoors.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Vanguard of grey

Recently arrived Common Cranes and Greylag Goose (Martin Kelsey)
It had been a month since I had last been down onto the rice fields in the centre of Extremadura. Then the harvest had just started with the caterpillar-tracked combines surging through crops heavy with dangling ears of grain. There were throngs of Red-veined Darters. Now with the harvest nearly finished, the dragonflies were absent and a new arrival had set the tone. As I arrived in early morning light, turning off the main road to take a small track beside the paddy fields, the first birds I saw were standing several fields back, testiment to their stature, From this distance two things struck one immediately: their distinctively sloping shapes and greyness. They were Common Cranes and no visit now to these fields for the next four mouth will fail to offer me such encounters.

As I watched them, the silence was broken by brusque and insistent trumpeting as two more cranes approached, appearing to stroke the very air by their graceful, gentle shallow wingbeats. Four others were following some way behind. Against a morning sky of light cloud, again greyness was the tone. Over the next two hours as I slowly made my way across the fields, driving slowly for about twelve kilometres, I counted a total of 796 Common Crane. The grey vanguard had well and truly arrived. They were not my first cranes of this autumn. Since the 7th October, I had seen skeins passing south over the house. But this was my first day out at a key wintering area for them. After submitting my count to the coordinator of the Crane Working Group in Extremadura (a group of crane freaks to which I happily assign) I heard just minutes later than this had brought the total partially counted so far in the whole rice-growing area to over 14,000 birds). This suggests that the arrival this autumn has been earlier and stronger than usual, which others have remarked on too in a more anecdotal way.

There were other differences too from my last visit: a few Scandanavian Greylag Geese were also present with the cranes on the stubble fields, Bluethroats teased one with glimpses as I passed muddy ditches and Water Pipits were present on muddy margins.

The previous day I had returned too to the Alcollarín Reservoir, which I had also neglected over the last few weeks. On my way there from home, I crossed its namesake river, which for months had been nothing more than a strip of dry grey-dusty gravel. Water was now marking its course. The water-level of the reservoir itself looked as low as it had in late summer, but there were some immediately obvious differences. As I looked along the strandline, I searched in vain for parties of passage waders, indeed the only birds present there were a few Green Sandpipers. Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Great and Little Egrets were there as usual, but now many of the ducks on the open water were returning to full breeding plumage, especially so the Mallard (with almost a thousand birds present), although the dozing raft of Shoveler in the deep water near the dam were still mottled by eclipse. I made my way parallel to the western shore, pausing to watch a Firecrest in an encina, and reached a vantage point. A crowd of Common Coot scuttled off from the shore and headed into the water to the south-east of my position, hard to see against the sun. Looking in the other direction, there was a group  of a dozen coot, a bit further away and seemingly oblivious to my presence. I repositioned myself, back to a tree to hide my outline and settled down to scan the water before me. The coot lured me, however, so I took a closer look at them. Quickly I noticed that one bird was different. Its bill was more bluish and appeared a bit longer and its white-shield above the bill seemed heart-shaped. Luckily the birds remained in good view for long enough for me to check other features to confirm my suspicions: sideways-on the shield met the base of the bill as a smooth curve rather than a deep inset and just about I could make out the reddish buds at the top of the shield itself (which produced the heart-shaped image): it was clearly a Red-knobbed Coot. This is a species that had not been recorded in Extremadura before 2008, but since 2012 it has been recorded annually with increasing sightings each year. These have been of marked birds (which had been bred in captivity and released as part of a reintroduction programme in elsewhere in Spain) as well as unmarked and presumably wild-bred birds. There had been an unmarked individual at Alcollarín last winter, as well as a sighting of a marked bird there in early spring.

Red-knobbed Coot (second from right) with Common Coot at Alcollarín (Martin Kelsey)

This site never leaves me disappointed and as I left, a heavy female Peregrine flew along the shore, creating a surge of commotion amongst the waterfowl. I watched her until she disappeared behind the slope of the wooded hill beside me. She too had been checking out the joint.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

An exploration of landscape

Watercolour artists in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

It was a summer that seemed never-ending, but the plunge into autumn, although a good month later than last year, has nevertheless been dramatic. Warm and sunny weather had three interregnums over sucessive weekends of rain. For the last two weeks we have hosted budding watercolour artists on a landscape painting course run by Peter Delahaye and during that time, each day in different settings, we explored by observation the shapes, shades and shadows that comprise landscape. Ever since my childhood, thanks in part to my father and also to the freedoms to explore, to discover and nurture patience, I strive to feel landscape, its myriad of parts and how they sum together. Watching for movement, picking up sound and colour. My media have been the pen and a camera and so it was an adventure to take the artists to our carefully selected sites and witness their own encounters with Extremadura.

Amongst the olives (Martin Kelsey)
From the challenge of interpreting slopes that descend and then rise, carrying ancient olive trees with their anguished trunks, to the proportions of distant mountains seen across undulating plains, the reflections of rock emerging from peaceful pools to folded strata multi-coloured by lichens, I watched as palettes were worked to find the colours that lay before us. And over the two weeks of painting, so the colours themselves changed. It seems nothing short of a miracle the transformation that is Extremadura's autumn. By the end of the first week, tiny green grass shoots had started, like shards of glass, to cut through the barren soil, emerging through the criss-cross of grey-blond dry vegetation, remnants of a distant spring. As the second week finished, the landscape bore a fresh green wash. The preciously ephemeral Autumn Snowflakes and Autumn Squills which had been early messengers of the change to come were now joined by vast swards of Serotine Narcissus, white carpets lying between the evergreen oaks of the dehesas.

Autumn Snowflake (Martin Kelsey)
For me nothing has epitomised the change so well as the onset of a passionate, almost melancholic, liquid song that has poured from the sky. The autumnal song of Woodlarks, delivered by these stubby-tailed, small larks on a wide, slow-circling flight had greeted us from above the house as we set off each morning and then at every stop we made in places of open woodland, olive groves and dehesas. There has been an urgency in their singing, so the birds have been aloft against both clear blue skies and in heavily overcast conditions too. I cannot stop myself, ever, from pausing to soak-in the sheer simple and poignant beauty of this sound.

As all good and patient observation does, the encounters the artists had with landscape became a personal exploration too. For some it had been the first time they had painted since childhood, indeed the first ever some claimed. The results were a fascinating mixture of figurative and abstract approaches, drawn from the encouragement to explore and experiment. It was a reconnection with self and careful witness of the dynamic of natural landscape.

On the edge of the plains (Martin Kelsey)

Monday, 28 September 2015

Contrast and constancy

A garland of House Martins (Martin Kelsey)
I sat down in front of the computer to write this post at 06.20. A pitch-dark quiet pre-dawn moment from a night of a super-moon. Our eleven year-old dog, Moro, made a gentle request to come into the house and as he settled beside me, a pattering sound started outside. So unfamiliar was the noise that I got up to take a look. It was the percussion of heavy, slow rain drops. Moonlight still framed the edges of the clouds, so the sky was far from overcast. There was a very distant rumble of thunder - that was why Moro had wanted to come in. But this shower is short-lived.

I cannot recall such a prolonged summer here, an autumn put off for so long. Two weeks ago we had a day with rain and it was first since the spring, or so it felt. I have been driven to comparing photos from late September last year with this, as if to convince myself that autumns are not always like this: seeking reassurance. Last year we had witnessed by now the warmly anticipated second spring in Extremadura. The wholly rain-fed plains were green. This year they are parched and increasingly threadbare with the remaining blond stems of withered spring growth now starting to disintegrate. In late September last year I walked beside rivers that flowed, this year there are just isolated still pools, tiny oases along stretches of grey dusty pebbles and smooth water-worn boulders. The perennial pessimism of true rural dwellers means that each conversation explores the theme of the "roasted" and "burnt" landscape and how the olives are wrinkling-up on the trees.

Yet despite this contrast, there is a striking constancy too, driven by cycles more fundamental than weather. On cue this year, as they were last year too, the landscape is also full of birds on the move, that quiet wave of Whinchats and Willow Warblers, Common Redstarts and flycatchers, perched on fences on the plains and exploring the pockets of shade below the encinas in the dehesa. Even more serruptitious and almost undetected are Grasshopper Warblers and Wrynecks: ground-hugging migrants. For me too, the arrival of our wintering Robins and the sweet morning autumnal song of Woodlark are cues enough.

Most dramatic are the House Martin gatherings. Here in the village, they form dense garlands, as if taking a mid-morning pause, congregating on the wires. I am totally engaged watching them snuggle-up to each other, filling the tiniest of gaps on a section of overhead cables, choosing just that section and ignoring the rest. Hundreds are tightly packed, mobile and shuffling, in a warming chirping conversation.  But even more staggering were the House Martins at the new dam wall of the Alcollarín reservoir. Last year I discovered these for the first time, thousands spread on the smooth warm concrete. Most appeared to be sunning themselves, whilst a few gathered in a band of shade below an overhang.

House Martins (Martin Kelsey)
My photo (above) was dated 22nd September. This year, just one day later and again on a late morning visit to the same site, there were again several thousand House Martins assembled. The dark specks of those taking restless short flights from the dam wall giving the appearance of a massive insect swarm, an eruption of flying ants perhaps. And like last year too, just an hour or two later, the wall was almost empty. The same question also came to mind.....where had these House Martins come from? Surely they are more than a simple sum of local birds, are these birds too, like the Whinchats and Redstarts, already on the move, pausing before their Saharan crossing? A question that for the time being remains unanswerable.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Late summer movement

Wood Sandpiper (Martin Kelsey)
Despite a recent respite, it has been one of the longest hottest summers we have had here in Extremadura. It has stifled activity during most of the day, so if one does venture out into the afternoon heat, there is little reward. Animals have retreated to the shadows, motionless: the only sounds are cicadas and bands of Bee-eaters trooping overhead. Be out at dawn however (which at this time of the year is already well after 07.00) and it is deliciously fresh and the changes afoot can be watched in comfort and clarity.  For several weeks now, waders from the Arctic tundra and boreal forests and bogs have been slipping into the Iberian Peninsula. The first were Green Sandpipers back in June, but now by mid-August, there is an arrival of other species. Gorgeous Wood Sandpipers, smaller and more refined than the Green, with daintier bills and delicately marked are here in good numbers now. Unlike the Green Sandpipers, which tend to bunker down on the remaining livestock dew ponds on the plains, or find ditches and canals, the Wood Sandpipers are in marshier habitat, which means in Extremadura, mainly irrigated rice paddies. Here they look for the few patches at field corners where the crop is sparse, or best of all a field which has lain fallow, but nevertheless has become flooded - a small muddy, sparsely vegetated patch in a sea of dense growing crops. I found such a place a few weeks ago and have been going back to it several times since. Up to about twenty Wood Sandpipers have been there on some visits, twice that number of the Ruff as well with all the different sizes and colours of this most varied of birds, along with a few other waders such as Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin and Little Stint. The attraction is food and as the photo above shows, the water surface is covered in insects.  Until just a few days ago, when I saw the first juvenile Ruff of the season, all of the waders have been adults, either failed breeders or with juveniles now independent. The latter will be making their appearance later. Parties of over a hundred Collared Pratincoles rest on this small field as well, with individuals rising to hawk the flying insects above the water, swooping, dipping and gliding. Unlike the waders, the Collared Pratincoles are a mixture of adults and the rather spotty juveniles, these are birds that have nested locally. Little Ringed Plovers step and stoop as they feed, also juveniles and adults, and a mixture of local birds with some arrivals from further north. The waders seem to synchronise their activity, busy pecking at the substrate surface followed by a wave of drowsiness as they paused to doze. A few remain vigilant and alert, tilting their heads skywards, keeping an eye as it were on the marauding Montagu's Harrier, quartering a bank a few fields away, a rich orange-plumaged juvenile.
Little Ringed Plover on the rice fields (Martin Kelsey)

On my favourite reservoir, Alcollarín, there have been a few passage waders too, feeding along the slowly receding strandline, but the main activity here is the slow build-up of numbers of duck, almost all of them Mallard, deep in their moulting eclipse plumage and a post-breeding concentration of nearly 600 Great Crested Grebes. In late July I was there, a day after hearing that an adult Audouin's Gull had been found at a reservoir in the far south of Extremadura. I checked a group of Black-headed Gulls resting on a spit, and seeing that there was nothing unusual there, started to count the Great Crested Grebes. Once that task was complete, I took another look at the spit where amongst the Black-headed, there was now a larger, grey-brown gull, Looking at it though the telescope, its features confirmed it to be a juvenile Audouin's, my first in Extremadura and a bird which will have orginated from one of the coastal colonies in eatsern Spain. On subsequent visits I saw it or other juvenile Audouin's Gulls (sometimes two were present), part of a small influx of this maritime species into our region this summer.

Juvenile Audouin's Gull at Alcollarín Reservoir (Martin Kelsey)

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

All with the Sierra de Gata

It was faint and difficult to place, an incense-like aroma sweet and resinous that I detected as I stepped outside at first light. There was a strange sullenness to the sky. Others too had sensed something. In our nearby town, Trujillo, concerned residents had climbed to the highest point in the town, to the granite walls of the castle which afford views of the landscape befitting one of the largest Moorish forts in Spain.  They had reported nothing unusual, but by now news broadcasts carried the information that we can sought. A large forest fire had started overnight in the Sierra de Gata, an area of great beauty in the extreme north-west of Extremadura. Two communities had already been evacuated and the windy conditions, coupled with the tinder-dry vegetation of drought-laden summer (seven weeks with no rain) meant that the fire was burning out of control. It was the same wind which had carried that faint dawn whiff of resin, for it was smouldering pine timber that we could smell. During the day, a ghastly grey pall cast a shroud over us, intensifying as noon passed. The Sierra de Gata is home to a large Black Vulture colony, perhaps more than 120 pairs, all tree-nesters and many in in pine forest. As the vulture glides, we lie more than 125 kilometres away, but so large was the fire, that as that afternoon progressed, the poor visibility here forced drivers to use headlights. There was an eerie silence and gloom, matching our mood. It felt akin to the dowsing of the sun by eclipse, or more forebodingly, an imaginary cloud of ash, a Krakatoa.

It took two days to bring the fire under some control, during which time a third village was evacuated and about 8,000 hectares of forest had been burnt, making it the second largest wild fire in Spain this year and more than twice as extensive as all the fires put together last year in Extremadura. Emergency services from across Extremadura, neighbouring regions from Spain and a contingent from Portugal, whose arrival brought applause from the Sierra de Gata inhabitants lining the road to welcome them. The effort had been huge: 24 aircraft, about 80 vehicles and over 500 personnel. Thanks to the prompt evacuations, there had been no loss of life or serious injuries, but properties had been lost. However, at this time of year, the mountain scenary, forests and natural swimming pools make the Sierra de Gata a popular holiday area. The impact of the fire would be devastating to the local economy. On the social networks a strong sense of solidarity has been growing. 14% of the area may have been affected, but that leaves 86% intact (and the Black Vulture colony was unscathed) - people were being urged to visit the Sierra de Gata, now with more urgency than ever. People are campaigning too against a new planning law which permits degrading the status of rural land after a fire, creating opportunities for development and potentially providing motives for arson.

Smoke rising over a hundred kilometres away at the Sierra de Gata (Martin Kelsey
On the evening of the first day, with dusk descending prematurely, I stood on the plains west of Trujillo, looking north-westwards. On the horizon I could make out a rising cloud of smoke with then spread eastwards, as a narrow, pervasive sheet. The plains that evening seemed unusually quiet, nature seemed to be cowering, until, at last, as my respite two distant Montagu's Harriers quartered the barren evening landscape, whilst a flight of Mallard erupted from a hidden flash of water for their nocturnal forage. Life in silhouette against an almost apocalyptic sky.

Mallard heading off for nocturnal feeding (Martin Kelsey)

Monday, 27 July 2015

Vulture quartet

The first Black Vulture arrives (Patrick Kelsey)
It has taken me eleven years to finally get to spend a morning in a photographic hide to watch vultures come to carrion. It had been on my bucket list ever since this type of service started to be offered in Extremadura. So it was great anticipation that I booked in for my son and me at the La Cañada Hide just south of the Monfragüe National Park. Jesús met us at the rendez-vous spot just after seven in the morning and a few minutes later he welcomed us into the hide. From the information I had read previously I had already dispelled any notion of sitting on a stool in a cramped canvas structure, with the camera lens poking out of a slit in the fabric. This was a bricks-and-mortar construction, with plenty of space. Curtains divided the hide into two: at the back the entrance, with a table with bird notes and a cubicle with a chemical flush toilet. Beyond the curtains, a long window covered almost the entire width of the building, using spy-glass so that birds outside could not see us inside. There we could sit on comfortable armchairs, with our cold-box with drinks and snacks between us. In the distance we could see the cliffs of Monfragüe, home to Griffon Vulture colonies, infront of that lay a wide expanse of dehesa whilst closer still was retama broom scrub with a few scattered small holm oaks. Immediately in front of us, like an arena, was a patch of beaten earth with scraggly grasses and some tree stumps. It was on this stage that the props had been scattered: abbatoir-leftovers of livestock and even a few hens' eggs in case an Egyptian Vulture took a fancy.

The sun had not yet started to illuminate the set when the first act started. Within minutes of us taking our seats, a flurry of Azure-winged Magpies dropped in from the wings to start taking tiny fragments of meat. More surprising was the arrival of Crested Larks, which, barely visible against the dry earth in the half light of dawn, also approached the sections of vertebrae to peck at morsels. As they did so a Black Kite circled over and settled on top of the tree to our left. It was a pioneer but remained lonesome until we had been there for about half an hour, when at ten minutes to eight other Black Kites started to pour in, all settling in the trees, some making low passes over the bait, but none settling to feed.  It was ten minutes after that when Patrick exclaimed "My God" as a Black Vulture flew to land on the top of the nearest tree to us. It was an exciting moment: neither of us had ever been that close to the Old World's largest bird of prey. Like the kites, it too remained perched, leaving the carrion for the time being to the Azure-winged Magpies. Over the next few minutes, a Griffon Vulture arrived to perch nearby, whilst an Egyptian Vulture appeared on a further tree.

Black and Griffon Vultures (Martin Kelsey)
We had been there an hour when the first Black Kite made a tentative landing and slowly, almost nervously approached the food. Others looked on from the trees. A Griffon Vulture, instantly dwarfing the kite also landed at the edge of the arena, but simply watched. But then the waiting was rewarded, as if by some coded signal, there was a surprise and seemingly sponanteous onslaught by a dozen Black Kites, piling onto a piece of carrion. The Azure-winged Magpies fled and were not seen again. Once the kites were positioned there, like some vanguard action, the vultures which had gardually been arriving in direct flight from Monfragüe and gathering on nearby treetops, started to descend. They assembled though at the periphery, in clusters, watching as the kites continued to push and shove around the bones. The drama unfolded and at times reached almost comic climaxes. As individual vultures approached the food, they performed a cheorography. Black Vultures lowered their necks and hunched their broad shoulders, half-spreading their wings like a villain's cloak and then taking huge slow-motion goose-steps as a threatening pose to ward off the kites. With more urgency, the long strides were switched to hops, with this massive bird literally bouncing kangaroo-like to gain pace. This menace was directed not just at the diminutive kites, but also to the other vultures, including congeners. Antagonism between the Griffon Vultures was also manifest by a bird standing on one-leg, with spread-eagled wings, raising the other leg slowly with its foot spreading open "palm" facing outwards to its opponent.

A scrum of vultures (Martin Kelsey)
And then, again with no sense of a advance notice, the vultures all moved-in in a matter of seconds. The stereotyped postures and prancing seemed subsumed by a brute force as birds plunged forwards and others descended from above. There was commotion and chaos, with a shreiking and wheezing. The vultures scrummaged and tumbled, dust was raised and the smaller kites and Egyptian Vultures were pushed aside by perhaps a hundred Griffon Vultures and over thirty Black Vultures. In the handful of minutes that this climax took place, the piles of carrion disappeared before our eyes. Fragments were dragged off by quarralling vultures into the scrub, or ingested on the spot.

As suddenly as this explosion of feeding has arisen, it subsided as the arena cleared and the big vultures either adjourned to the shade below the trees, or took off to the cliffs. In their place returned Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures, scurrying over the ground in search of scant remains, reminiscent of ragged-clothed hags scavenging across a deserted battlefield.

Egyptian Vulture (Martin Kelsey)

The morning was almost over and I lifted my binoculars to look through the party of vultures standing in the shade of the tree directly in front of us. Amongst the Griffon Vultures there was one which was slightly smaller and darker. Looking at it more closely, one could see that the tips of the feathers on the wing-coverts and underparts were pale, giving it quite a mottled appearance.

Rüppell's Vulture amongst Griffon Vultures (Martin Kelsey)
Fortunately it moved out of the shade and for a few minutes walked in the open, passing in turn Black Kites, Egyptian, Black and Griffon Vultures. As it walked it had a low-slung stance and in good light the tone of the plumage was almost like that of a Black Vulture, save the pale mottling. We were looking at a juvenile Rüppell's Vulture, a vagrant from Afica and the first I had ever seen in Extremadura.
Juvenile Rüppell's Vulture (Martin Kelsey)

In recent years individuals have been recorded, often in the summer, probably birds that have joined non-breeding Griffon Vultures as they return across the Straits of Gibralter into the Iberian Peninsula. It is a species of sub-Saharan Africa and would somehow link-up with young Griffon Vultures during their period of nomadic existence in Africa. The morning's show had encompassed high drama and comic interludes, but had finished with the emotional image of birds without borders, shifting between continents, embracing terrain of superficial similarity, the Extremeñan dehesa with the Sahelian savannas.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Flocks on the summer plains

Calandra Lark forms large post-breeding flocks in the summer (John Hawkins)
The summer heat has been fiercer and more prolonged this year, pushing folk indoors for most of the day as temperatures hit 40ºC, thus the exhilaration to be out in the relative freshness of dawn. It was especially so this morning following a night of distant thunder, with the emerging rays of sunshine blushing the pink-grey clouds. On the plains the spring mosaic has been transformed to an almost monochrome blonded-yellow with pasture now indistinguishable from cereal stubble. The only fields that stand apart are those that have been ploughed and now rest. In one, where the ground had been turned over months ago, there was an incongruous green: the indomitable Heliotrope with its rounded grey-green leaves and tiny furl of white flowers, a plant that somehow flourishes in bare dry soils and the dessicating heat of high summer.

The first birds airbourne were the parties of Cattle Egrets, radiating purposefully from the roost, quickly followed by the Black Kites with lazy flight, drifting. Atop piles of stones in the fields, rock-coloured in the dawn light, but distinctive in form, were Little Owls - from one stop I could see four different individuals. From the same spot, I picked out the periscope-shaped necks and heads of Great Bustard, in a meadow of dry grass so tall that they were almost hidden. White Storks were also out patrolling the ground for grasshoppers. A wave of short sharp notes filled the air, just like the sound of dry broom seed pods bursting open in the sun, as a group of Corn Buntings passed me. Birds seemed to be in flocks. A party of a hundred Spotless Starlings were lined-up, in regimented fashion, on the fence, a mixture of blackish adults and browner juveniles. They swirled down to the meadow and disappeared completely from view in the grass. From stubble rose a rasping, wheezing mass of Calandra Larks, with Short-toed Larks accompanying them, emerging in waves and then flying noisily in low direct flight to settle again, successive groups leap-frogging others. There must have been six or seven hundred of them, and as they turned to settle the flash revealed of white outer tail feathers and traling edge to the wing.

The monochrome plains of high summer (Martin Kelsey)
Seemingly nearby a Quail sang, but so deceptive is the sound and featureless the grassy terrain, that I did not attempt to even guess its whereabouts as I set off on a short walk across the field, in the opposite direction. As I did so, a spring-loaded Quail catapaulted from the ground a few feet away and zoomed off just above the vegetation before banking sharply, landing and disppearing. It was a different individual from the singing bird and had taken me by surprise. I stood still. Sightings of this widespread bird are rare and they are very hard to flush. I have occasionally seen competing males, coming out onto open ground in rivalry and with careful forward-thinking, Quail can sometimes be spotted as one looks far enough ahead along dirt tracks, especially when they come out of the verge at dawn to grit.  But most of my sightings have been in autumn and winter when Quail  more easily take to flight from the stubble in the rice fields.  It was whilst talking about Quails that my friend Mark Cocker reminded me that the Spanish name Guión de Codornices (meaning "the Quails' guide or herald") is given to the Corncrake, whose French name has a similar connotation. Hunters of old had noted that on migration the two species were often associated. Indeed almost all of the handful of Corncrake records from Extremadura are of birds mistaken for Quail and shot during the short autumn Quail-hunting season (I say mistaken deliberately since the hunters handed the birds to the authorities because they could not identify them and had taken them for Quail as they flew up). No ornithologist has any idea how many Corncrake regularly migrate through Extremadura and I know of none who has seen one alive here. Therein the challenge!

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Mobbing frenzy

Short-toed Eagle with snake (John Hawkins)
The juvenile Blackbird was adopting a curious stance on the ground. It held its body erect and alert, its wings dropped, so that their tips almost brushed the earth and, most striking of all, its dark new tail spread wide like a stiff fan, also pushed downwards. Indeed so widely opened was the tail that the shafts of its twelve pristine-perfect feathers were countable. Adjacent to the young Blackbird was a Nightingale, cocking its tail skywards and giving a dry harsh alarm call. A posse of House Sparrows charged noisily onto the scene, scenting danger. In the bush above an Azure-winged Magpie swooped in to join the frenzy, uttering its menacing nasal drawl. It took me a little longer to figure out what the commotion was about. Just a few centimetres in front of the Blackbird lay the greyish-brown form of a Ladder Snake, almost a metre in length and with the diagnostic parallel dark lines running from head to tail along its upper surface. It was motionless, its head held slightly off the ground and its fixed stare magnet-like as it drew in my focus and that of the birds around it. But, it had merely paused and then glided from the shorter vegetation into a deeper tangle of growth where its presence would be fully hidden from view.

It was evening and the Ladder Snake, one of the most common species here, was setting off to search for prey having spent the day sheltering from the summer heat. Mobbing responses of birds towards snakes are often seen here, indeed most episodes like this that I encounter have been triggered by snakes, rather than say owls or mammalian predators. On several occasions along dirt tracks on the plains I have seen what at first seem to be dancing larks, but on closer inspection have been anxious birds jigging with tails and wings spread, seemingly attempting in a form of distraction display, feigning helplessness, to draw an intruding Montpellier Snake away from vulnerable chicks. What made this event particularly interesting was the protagonism of the juvenile Blackbird, not that long ago fledged from the nest and possibly encountering a snake for the first time in its life. It presumably was displaying a deep-rooted instinctive response, set off by something about the form and motion of a snake, evoking both intrigue and fear, that does not happen when, for example, a bird might see a basking lizard. The bird's response in turn set off a reaction amongst other birds, of different species, in the vicinity, combining curiosity and reciprocity to result in a collective action to force the snake onward.
Ladder Snake (Martin Kelsey)
The changing daily patterns of the snake activity brings out other interested parties as well. In these baking hot summer days there is little movement or sign of life as the temperature rises in the afternoon. Most animals are finding some shelter, some shade. For cold-blooded reptiles there is a real risk of overheating if exposed to the force of the summer sun, so snakes become most active as the sun drops and night approaches. Short-toed Eagles are snake specialists and have timed their return from wintering quarters in Africa to the emergence of snakes from their winter hiberation. In late February and March, snakes need all the sunlight they can find and become easy to see as they bask on the roads in the middle of the day (and became very vulnerable in the process). Then the Short-toed Eagles are hunting at midday, but now in late June, their stationary form fixed in the sky, making occasional slow deep hovering flaps, appears at dusk. With the light so dim that even the acumen of an eagle's eye must be limited, they scan the hillside from their high position, searching for serpentine movement. I wonder if they too track the frenzy of the mobbing response when smaller birds detect a snake..

Monday, 22 June 2015

Opportunity terns

Gull-billed Tern colony (Martin Kelsey)
Hit by the heat of summer, now laden upon us, a soporific solstice, I feel a lull across most of the landscape. There is a tidyness across the sun-bleached plains, with hay stacked in bales and stubble fields in lieu of crops. They are dotted by White Storks, foraging for youngsters which any moment now will vacate their nests. Around the smallholdings and gardens in the village, the withered yellowed stems that remained of the spring flush have been cut and gathered. We are all fire conscious and have used last few weeks in trimming and tidying. The dehesas are neat with each tree defined in shape against the dry golden pasture below. Summer sounds different too. The Nightingale now croaks like a frog, its song period over and we hear merely its call note from the bramble cover. Dawn is quieter, save for year-long House Sparrows' conversations. There are flurries of Spotless Starlings passing by whilst small parties of Bee-eaters slowly wheel high above, reinforcing the sense of the languid summer.

I find an abrupt counterpoint by water. Making my way beside the Alcollarín Reservoir, the sound reaches me from some distance. It is incessant, a cacophonous, rubbing almost nasal chitter. Gull-billed Terns with slow, deliberate flight head towards this sound, bearing small glistening fish fry from their jet black bills. Others, empty-billed, radiate away. On a small, low-lying island, tricoloured with its bands of sandy beach, vegetation green and blond dry stems in the centre, there is sound and motion. Over eighty pairs of Gull-billed Terns have opportunistically chosen this secure but transient site to establish a colony. Crowded mainly at one end, leaving the extreme eastern end of the slither of land for loafing Great Cormorants, the terns produce that wonderful sense of bickering and neighbourly squabbling. A bird arrives with a small fish, hovering briefly over its patch as it checks the best place to land for passing this gift to its mate. Most of the birds seem to be sitting tight on nests, but along the shoreline, there are two large tern chicks begging for food, confirming what I had suspected, that this breeding opportunity had been taken up by some pioneering pairs first with others coming on board later on.  The Gull-billed Terns were not alone. Dwarfed and out-numbered,  Little Terns with their darting jerky flight crossed the island and I reckoned that there were at least five nesting pairs there, away from the Gull-billed hullabaloo. The beach also was liberally dotted by incubating Great Crested Grebes, looking remarkably ungainly the land, their legs set almost as far back along their bodies as could be, gingerly waddling in a slow swaying motion from the water to the pile of weeds which served as the nest. Along the strandline Little Ringed Plovers were scampering, darting between the terns and grebes.

There were Black-headed Gills too and as a Black Kite flew over, sending the terns into an immedate panic, a pair of gulls set off after the kite to mob it. This display by the gulls to ward off such a threat I had not seen here before and it meant just one thing: that the gulls too had nests. On the side of the island in view, I saw two gulls that were sitting tight at the edge of the tall grasses. On the other side another bird was sitting, clearly incubating, whilst nearby there were a pair of adults with the dark brown downy forms of three small gull chicks. Abundant though this species is most of the year in Extremadura, it is a rare breeding bird, with just a small population spread across just a few breeding colonies. This finding represented a new breeding site for the species.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Favourite byways

Southern White Admiral (Martin Kelsey)
I guess it is a gut feeling that signals that something has potential, is special. Thus so a path through decidous woodland that I have only ever walked along six times so far and, only once, indeed, have made significant progress along it. It lies in the Ibores Mountains of eastern Extremadura.  It starts unprepossessing enough, like any number of the rutted dirt tracks that finger their way across the countryside here, access routes to smallholdings and traversed by old Citroen vans. It climbs, mostly gently, with a stream at its side, which provides irrigation for little vegetation gardens on terraces on the opposite bank. It makes its way through ancient coppiced Sweet Chestnut groves, small clearings where side paths set off and tracts of dense Pyrenean Oak. Banks of brambles tumble alongside the path in places.

Pyrenean Oak glade
I had first visited this track a few autumns ago, surrounded by glorious Fall colours and made note to go again in springtime. My vow was to remain unfulfilled until last year, when I returned in mid-May. Within minutes of starting the walk, I was finding the withered flower spikes of orchids. I searched amongst them to find any whose flowers still showed any memory of colour or form. It became almost a forensic investigation and my conclusion was that there were at least two species, one with pink flowers and the other with creamy white flowers. I even made a guess at what species they were, but clearly I needed to wait another year and return earlier in the spring to establish their identity with certainty.

This year, thanks to the opportunity of taking a visitor round who was keen on orchids, I returned. It was mid-April and the path exceeded my expectations by a league. Dotted along close to the path were magnificent creamy Sulphur Orchids, in perfect condition. Early Purple Orchids appeared on higher slopes, whilst Narrow-leaved Helleborines were just starting to flower. My hunch had more than paid off, but now the path enticed me further. I was not convinced that the remnant pinkish orchids I had found the previous year were Early Purple Orchids, especially since they had not been growing where this colony was present. Three weeks later, I secured a return visit. With the acceleration that is spring, three weeks is a huge gap and the Sulphur Orchids were now barely recognisable. But what had emerged in the interim excited me still further. Langei's Orchids were now beside the path and were clearly the pinkish-flowered species that I had found a year earlier. But a little further along the path, I found what I had really been hoping for: a stand of  Dactylorhiza insularis, scarce and highly localised species in Extremadura.

Dactylorhiza insularis (Martin Kelsey)

But the walk that May morning had added further attractions to the lure of this path. Beautiful Demoiselles flitted across the glades, moving from shaft of sunlight into shadow and on the newly opening bramble flowers and patches of blue scabius on sunny banks, butterflies wandered.

Beautiful Demoiselle (Martin Kelsey)
Southern White Admirals sought resting places on bramble leaves, tantalizingly seemingly changing their minds at the last minute, leaving one guessing where they would land. Provence Fritillaries hugged the scabius together, whilst an Amanda's Blue settled on the path by my feet. In just two short walks of not even a couple of kilometres in length (naturalists don't tend to go for a walk, they go for a stop), a week apart, I have found 32 species of butterfly this spring, and the flight period of others may only just be starting.

Amanda's Blue (Martin Kelsey)
In a few days time, I will return to this byway again and who knows perhaps even make it beyond the first kilometre or so....but more than likely not.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Kitchen window Hawfinches

Hawfinch feeding on milk thistle seeds: a photo through the kitchen window (Martin Kelsey)
They stand tall, some over two metres high, and carry now a dense white star-burst tuft of parachute filaments, crammed together within a stockade of dry needle-sharp bracts, and each holding a large, blackish seed. The Milk Thistle, which bears the gloriously cheeky scientific name of Silybum marianum, is now reaching the culmination of its annual cycle. The stand growing behind a low wall in front of our kitchen window has now almost completely hidden the rest of the garden from view and by default now is my centre of attention as I wash glasses at the sink. And I wait in anticipation as I know, thanks to eleven years now of watching these thistle treasures of late May, that these white fibrous cups hold a valued resource for one of my all-time favourite birds. I do not have to wait long before I hear the short metallic "chink" call and see movement of the stems just beyond the wall. A sizeable bird has arrived and it soon appears, benefiting from the twig of an adjacent olive tree which carries the tiny green orbs of embryonic olives, amidst a slowly drying cluster of little pale flowers. The Hawfinch bends down and with its massive bill, reaches out to gently extract from the old flower head a single seed. It resumes its normal perching posture and works the seed within its bill, its hefty mandibles ajar and its tongue pushing and pressing the morsel of food. Its bill action reminds me a bit of watching someone who has taken a mouthful of food which is still a tad too hot - trying to keep the food moving inside the mouth and inhaling cooling air at the some time.

I look forward to this time of year in the garden, as the Hawfinches reappear. It is a welcome reaquaintance with a species that I will see now probably on a daily basis whenever I am working in the garden. During the summer, these engaging birds will come to the birds' bathing pool to drink and splash, they will feed on the fruit of the cypress trees and throughout autumn and winter, visit the garden to peck at the energy-packed flesh of the olives. In late winter, as the almond tree blossom falls, a series of disjointed chinking notes will betray a singing male Hawfinch, perched atop the very same tree in front of the house, its grey nape contrasting with a warm chestnut cap. As it flies the broad white wing bar appears almost translucent, whilst the wide white band at the tip of the tail is bold and eye-catching.

As the elms produce their lime-green mast, before the leaf buds have opened in late March, the Hawfinches feast on these. They must be a real delicacy for these birds, for parties will feed on these and become almost oblvious of one's presence below.

And then they disappear. For the rest of spring, Hawfinches become almost impossible to find. They are silent and I still have yet to find out what they feed on during these weeks. This is the time they are nesting and secrecy becomes their tallisman. Days will go past with not even the briefest evidence of their presence, until they reappear, often with fledged young, as the Milk Thistles go to seed. They must be nesting close to the garden, but it was not until this year that I found for the first time a Hawfinch nest. High in a poplar tree, persistent begging calls rang out from a rather bulky nest of small twigs, adorned by lichen. I could just about see the shape of nestlings bobbing their heads, but it was not until an adult Hawfinch arrived and I saw it carefully masticating its bill to extrude food for the young that I was sure of the identity of the brood. It was as if a final piece of my long jigsaw game with this species had been put in place.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Orchid succession

Bug Orchid (Martin Kelsey)
For those who can tell, the colour of the plains and dehesas on this, April's last day, gives a signal. There is a realisation that the course is now set and the arid gold of summer is but countable days ahead. The landscape is still green, but the flowering grasses has pigmented the spring lushness with a lighter, softer, yellowish green...and it is irreversible this side of autumn. Spring feels intense, but short in Extremadura, a dizzy cascading unfurling of events and cycles. There is a visible succession, a phenology, across all life at this time. Wintering birds leave as summer visitors arrive, the different flight times of butterflies, the rolling sequence of colours of the flowers in the dehesas.  In a matter of just four weeks, the cycle of orchids has intensified: emerging spikes, flowering, setting seed and withering. Species that accompanied me just a month ago, with their luring names: Sawfly, Mirror and Early Spider, gave way to Bug and Lax-flowered.

Tongue orchid (Martin Kelsey)

Now as we enter May, the Tongue Orchids poke their spikes through the strands of quaking grass, rigid whilst the grass stems around them bounce in the breeze.

For freshness now, an ascent is required to the deciduous woodlands of the Ibores and Gredos, brushed by the song of Western Bonelli's Warblers, where stands of Sulphur and Early Purple Orchids rise from the leaf litter in the dappled shade of the Sweet Chestnut grove.

Sulphur Orchid (Martin Kelsey)

Friday, 24 April 2015

Great Bustard wheels

Great Bustard (John Hawkins)

In Spanish it is called the rueda (the wheel), in English it is described often as a foam bath....quite different images come to mind, but in spring on the plains of Extremadura they converge to a single meaning....that extraordinary performance of a displaying male Great Bustard. Early this month, on a calm and sunny morning just twenty minutes from home, we stood mesmerised. Across a span of 180 degrees, on fields with sward shaped by sheep, there were six white objects, contrasting strongly with spring's green flush on the meadows. These shapes transformed before us: sometimes pyramidal, sometimes round, the white changing to deep orange. The form depended on the bird's aspect. As it wheeled around slowly, it paused seemingly at 90 degree turns. From the rear it was triangular and white, with the tail pushed upwards and forwards, so all that one could see at the apex of this shape were the white under-tail covert feathers. The sides were composed by the feathers of the wing, but these no longer confined to the normal contour of the body, but each set partially erect, each slightly separate from each other. This could be seem more clearly as the bird wheeled laterally, giving us its profile. The white inner secondaries and wing covert feathers created what looked like a huge rosette. But even more striking was the front half of this view. The bird's head was pushed back, so that it appeared to just about touch the tip of the tail, arched over the back. Large nuptual whiskers struck a taut vertical position, catching the morning sunshine. From the bill downwards, feathers had parted to reveal a dramatic dark slash-like streak which took us to the most astonishing part of all: its inflated neck pouch: deep orange, so massive that it looked like a wobbly medicine ball which brushed the ground on which the bird stood. An abrupt ninety degree shift and the bird presented its front view. Now the neck pouch dominated and the bird by a single half-circle turn had changed from a pure white pyramid, to a spectacular rich-cream to russet-orange, with deeper hues around the base of this globulous shape.

Great Bustards (John Hawkins)
The slow turns which brought these changes in shape and colour, were accompanied by movement too. In this sense, the displaying male recalled a sumo wrestler as it heaved its wings in slow heavy shakes. The rotation of the body was delivered by the action of its feet, which made slow and deliberate stamps on the ground.

Close to him, was a slender, greyer form; a female, inquisitive but wary. Her approach excited him, his wings quivered, and he wheeled with great aplomb. But her game was caution. She could play the field, as dotted across the landscape were other performing hopefuls. This widely dispersed lek, where males competed against each other and the female had the last word recalled a ballroom scene from Jane Austen. As she got closer so he seemed to puff himself up even further, and then she glided past, turning away and the male struck one as almost crestfallen, his esteem struck and his dance subsided, the wings closed and his balloon-like pouch visibly deflated. The closure of his wings transformed their colour from white to the gorgeously intricate pattern of rich bars of black and golden brown, and he strutted, tail still erect over his back, with slow stately paces, like a dandy put in his place.

Now as the month draws to a close, so the rueda of the Great Bustards slowly ends. Today we watched a foam bath male, the sight, as always, spectacular, but perhaps now rather poignant, the closing days of this spring frenzy. Three females stood close-by, perhaps those still yet to choose. His ertswhile competitors are now forming the summer groups of males, their rivalry over as they feed together, whilst females quietly move on to find secluded spots to nest.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Heraldic Bluethroats

Bluethroat (Martin Kelsey)
It was the white spot which made us gasp. As it turned to face us, standing with elegance with its long legs, drooped wings and cocked tail, the male Bluethroat transformed. Having shown us its hind view, predominately a grey mousy-brown, with an orange base to the sides of its tail, face-on the difference could not have been more startling. It bore a throat and breast of pure sapphire, carrying a broad darkish band below which untidily merged onto an even broader dark brick-coloured cumberband. But what drew our gaze was its badge of immaculate white, centrally placed amidst the blue. It was almost reflective in its quality, like a medallion, illuminous even. It was hard to think of feathers being the medium for this - it was more like an inlaid little mirror in a Rajasthani embroidery.

 Bluethroat (Martin Kelsey)
I had a fondness for this particular Bluethroat, as I have watched it many times over the last few months, as it fed within its little winter territory, making mouse-like scurries across patches of open ground and pausing, as if to take its breath, upright, with tail held high. It was frequently embroiled with chases with its neighbour - another male, but not as smartly-plumaged as this one. It has been bold and engaging each time. But there was something different today. As we arrived, I heard a short burst of its song from deep in the Typha cover. A song of special places and memories for me....from Bluethroats atop montane broom high in the Gredos Mountains of Spain, to a walk I took beside the Indus River in Ladakh years ago where Bluethroats were singing every few strides I took. But what made today's reunion different was the spring sunshine touching its colours, which were the freshest and brightest I had ever seen them. This male had now completed the partial moult of its head and breast and slowly, imperceptively, over the last few weeks had replaced its feathers there. It was now ready with its pristine, fresh heraldic colours, and its song, to start its migration back to its breeding grounds. I wondered if this would be the last time I would watch him.

The white-spot on the breast told me that his destination would probably be somewhere in Central Europe and studies suggest that this is the origin of the increasing numbers of Bluethroats now wintering in Spain. It has become a bird quite easy to find despite its generally skulking behaviour (which reminds one that it belongs to the same genus as the nightingales) in marshy areas in winter here, especially also in the ditches beside rice fields, often betraying its presence with its tucking call, reminiscent of the sound of barbers' scissors snipping away. But what made this equinoxal encounter so special was to see this gorgeous character, completing its winter sojourn with us, now dressed fresh for spring and clearly poised to embark to another similar sized territory, perhaps two or three thousand kilometres to the north. I wished him well.