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.