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!