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.