Thursday, 29 January 2015

The game is patience

Great Egret (Martin Kelsey)
As we approached the tiny circular pond, the Great Egret strode out and stood on a grassy slope close to its edge. Its feeding interrupted, it was stoic and motionless, and waited. We did likewise, cocooned in the vehicle, stationary. Not a word. The white flowers of Water-Crowfoot poked through the meniscus, there was not a ripple. Minutes passed and the game was underway: who would move first? A Robin ticked from the undergrowth nearby....long pauses between its notes, as if the pendulum of time had slowed. Eventually though there had to be a victor and our patience was rewarded. With an almost resigned gait, the egret took the first tentative steps and then, gaining confidence, it strided back down in the water. There its patience took over. It stood, hunched, concealing its serpentine neck and peered. A keen pupil set in a pale lime iris with an outer narrow dark ring made the eye look acute and focussed, tilted forward producing a band of bincular vision in line with its dagger-like bill. 
Great Egret (Martin Kelsey)
Without moving, it turned and twisted its neck, changing the line of vision and marking the slightest movement below the water surface, adjustments for shadow and reflection. It paused and raised a leg slightly and then stirred the water gently with its submerged foot, the body showing a slight vibrating motion as it did so. This movement aimed to flush out prey and, now with both feet planted on the pond's bed, the neck twisted again and in a dramatic horizontal lunge, a strike. In a counterpoint to time slowed-down at the start of our encounter, this attack was like a blur and was successful, yielding a small fish curled at the end of the egret's clasping, pincer-like mandibles.

The sound of an oncoming vehicle caused the Great Egret to pause and raise its neck mast-like and vertical, betraying for the first time its extraordinary length in proportion to its body. As it did so, it looked straight at us with its eyes angled to bring us to the pin-point of its focus, holding us tightly fixed.
Great Egret (Martin Kelsey)
Once considered a rarity in Extremadura, the Great Egret is now almost commonplace along rivers, pools and in irrigated areas and they have started breeding in the region several years ago, reflecting a spread westwards of a population that was eastern European. At the pool it was joined by a Little Egret, a fraction of its size, which in turn has spread northwards through Europe. They use foot stirring far more frequently when foraging and overall are a much more active when feeding than Great Egrets, often bursing out into short runs in pursuit of prey at the water's edge. Groups will congregate where parties of Great Cormorant are fishing, with flotillas of cormorants fanning out and appearing to drive shoals into shallower water close to the shore, with the egrets becoming increasingly fenzied with the prospect. As the cormorants move, so the team of egrets leapfrog over each other in short flights to line-up and await the shoal's arrival a little way further down the bank.

Little Bittern (Martin Kelsey)
The following day, amongst the yellow winter stalks and stems of Typha, we had chanced upon a male Little Bittern. Whilst the egrets' pure-whiteness is visible from great distance, the Little Bittern is wonderfuly cryptic, despite its strong and contrasting pattern, which like the stripes of a tiger, appears to dissolve in the sharp light and dark effect of vertical vegetation. It remained motionless, eyes (indeed tiger's eye in colour), in heron fashion, directly forward in an intent focus. The tiny fish it will seize, swimming just below the surface at the edge of the mat of vegetation, will be struck by the dart of the bittern's lunge, as if tightly wound coils are dramatically released. A moment's distraction took our eyes elsewhere and when we looked again, the Little Bittern had vanished, deep into the Typha, taking its stare elsewhere.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Chiffchaff enchantment

Common Chiffchaff (Martin Kelsey)
Looking beyond the arch of the ancient bridge, the river shallowed upstream with exposed stones and tufts of vegetation on small shingle spits. The winter drought has softened the flow, so mirror-surfaced pools reflected a cloudless sky. As I watched, the quietness of the river contrasted with darts of activity. It was as if tiny sprites were emerging to dance this sunlit afternoon. The creatures flitted across the water with little hovers and then almost skipped amongst the pebbles. The Chiffchaffs were casting their spell yet again.

All this week I have been accompanying Derek and Helen on their holiday to Extremadura and we have visited the wide selection of habitats and landscapes that the region boasts. But amongst the memories of wildlife encounters that are being lodged in our minds, the most recurring is without question the Common Chiffchaff. Not only is this winter visitor abundant, but what strikes the visitor from northern Europe is its eclectic choice of habitat. Generally associated on its northern breeding grounds with tall trees, it is quite simply the most ubiquitous of all birds here in winter. We have found wintering Chiffchaffs from montane scrub and heathland to rice stubble fields, from decidous Pyrenean oak woodland, pine woods, cork oak forest and holm oak dehesa, from treeless dry-country plains and pastures to the edges of dense stands of typha and reeds. Chiffchaffs have darted from the gritty patches of bare ground beside the castle in the centre of Trujillo and before the Temple of Diana in the heart of Mérida. They haunt the edges of lakes and fast-flowing rivers. Chiffchaffs have been present at every place we have stopped in and often in small parties....there will be millions of them across the region.

What has been equally enchanting has been their foraging. I will never forget my first encounter with this species in winter in India. I had just arrived in Delhi to start a new job and on my first free morning took a visit to the Delhi Zoo, which was a recommended birding spot. Whilst other visitors headed to the tigers and rhinos, I dallied in the wooded areas, watching Hume's Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers. And then coming across the edge of a pool in an enclosure I was initially puzzled by a small group of unmarked Phylloscopus warblers searching for food on the ground at the water's edge. They were Common Chiffchaffs.

And here in Extremadura too, at the edge of the mud of a paddy field, close to a gorgeous male Bluethroat which elegantly hopped on its long, slender legs, tail cocked, out came the brownish olive little warblers, with tiny jerky bounces, as if caused by the release of little springs. As with their universality in terms of habitat, so their diverse ways of catching small insects. On the sunny side of trees, they glean the underside of leaves, they sally like active flycatchers out from the canopy. They explore the vertical stems of emergent vegetation and move like Dunnocks on the ground in parks and gardens, with rapid flicking of the wings. They perch on fences and drop into the tussocks below. And along the river, like minature wagtails they fly out and with delicate agility, hover just above the still surface of the water, causing the faintest of ripples, to hunt the miniscule flies venturing out on a winter's afternoon.