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Showing posts from 2015

Countdown

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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 (f…

Vulture nuptials

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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 othe…

Golden bands

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Standing at 1600 metres above sea-level on an early November  day...it 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,

We then took the track that moved serpent-like through wooded hillsides. Still-green maples contrasted with the brilliant gold of…

Tilled and tidied

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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 f…

Vanguard of grey

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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 follo…

An exploration of landscape

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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.

From the challenge of interpreting slopes that descend and then rise, carrying ancient olive tre…

Contrast and constancy

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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 w…

Late summer movement

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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…

All with the Sierra de Gata

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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.…

Vulture quartet

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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 u…

Flocks on the summer plains

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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, drif…

Mobbing frenzy

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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 …

Opportunity terns

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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…

Favourite byways

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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.

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 las…

Kitchen window Hawfinches

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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 …

Orchid succession

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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.


Now as we enter…

Great Bustard wheels

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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 win…

Heraldic Bluethroats

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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.

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 o…