Sunday, 16 August 2015

Late summer movement

Wood Sandpiper (Martin Kelsey)
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 plains, or find ditches and canals, the Wood Sandpipers are in marshier habitat, which means in Extremadura, mainly irrigated rice paddies. Here they look for the few patches at field corners where the crop is sparse, or best of all a field which has lain fallow, but nevertheless has become flooded - a small muddy, sparsely vegetated patch in a sea of dense growing crops. I found such a place a few weeks ago and have been going back to it several times since. Up to about twenty Wood Sandpipers have been there on some visits, twice that number of the Ruff as well with all the different sizes and colours of this most varied of birds, along with a few other waders such as Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin and Little Stint. The attraction is food and as the photo above shows, the water surface is covered in insects.  Until just a few days ago, when I saw the first juvenile Ruff of the season, all of the waders have been adults, either failed breeders or with juveniles now independent. The latter will be making their appearance later. Parties of over a hundred Collared Pratincoles rest on this small field as well, with individuals rising to hawk the flying insects above the water, swooping, dipping and gliding. Unlike the waders, the Collared Pratincoles are a mixture of adults and the rather spotty juveniles, these are birds that have nested locally. Little Ringed Plovers step and stoop as they feed, also juveniles and adults, and a mixture of local birds with some arrivals from further north. The waders seem to synchronise their activity, busy pecking at the substrate surface followed by a wave of drowsiness as they paused to doze. A few remain vigilant and alert, tilting their heads skywards, keeping an eye as it were on the marauding Montagu's Harrier, quartering a bank a few fields away, a rich orange-plumaged juvenile.
Little Ringed Plover on the rice fields (Martin Kelsey)

On my favourite reservoir, Alcollarín, there have been a few passage waders too, feeding along the slowly receding strandline, but the main activity here is the slow build-up of numbers of duck, almost all of them Mallard, deep in their moulting eclipse plumage and a post-breeding concentration of nearly 600 Great Crested Grebes. In late July I was there, a day after hearing that an adult Audouin's Gull had been found at a reservoir in the far south of Extremadura. I checked a group of Black-headed Gulls resting on a spit, and seeing that there was nothing unusual there, started to count the Great Crested Grebes. Once that task was complete, I took another look at the spit where amongst the Black-headed, there was now a larger, grey-brown gull, Looking at it though the telescope, its features confirmed it to be a juvenile Audouin's, my first in Extremadura and a bird which will have orginated from one of the coastal colonies in eatsern Spain. On subsequent visits I saw it or other juvenile Audouin's Gulls (sometimes two were present), part of a small influx of this maritime species into our region this summer.

Juvenile Audouin's Gull at Alcollarín Reservoir (Martin Kelsey)

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

All with the Sierra de Gata

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. During the day, a ghastly grey pall cast a shroud over us, intensifying as noon passed. The Sierra de Gata is home to a large Black Vulture colony, perhaps more than 120 pairs, all tree-nesters and many in in pine forest. As the vulture glides, we lie more than 125 kilometres away, but so large was the fire, that as that afternoon progressed, the poor visibility here forced drivers to use headlights. There was an eerie silence and gloom, matching our mood. It felt akin to the dowsing of the sun by eclipse, or more forebodingly, an imaginary cloud of ash, a Krakatoa.

It took two days to bring the fire under some control, during which time a third village was evacuated and about 8,000 hectares of forest had been burnt, making it the second largest wild fire in Spain this year and more than twice as extensive as all the fires put together last year in Extremadura. Emergency services from across Extremadura, neighbouring regions from Spain and a contingent from Portugal, whose arrival brought applause from the Sierra de Gata inhabitants lining the road to welcome them. The effort had been huge: 24 aircraft, about 80 vehicles and over 500 personnel. Thanks to the prompt evacuations, there had been no loss of life or serious injuries, but properties had been lost. However, at this time of year, the mountain scenary, forests and natural swimming pools make the Sierra de Gata a popular holiday area. The impact of the fire would be devastating to the local economy. On the social networks a strong sense of solidarity has been growing. 14% of the area may have been affected, but that leaves 86% intact (and the Black Vulture colony was unscathed) - people were being urged to visit the Sierra de Gata, now with more urgency than ever. People are campaigning too against a new planning law which permits degrading the status of rural land after a fire, creating opportunities for development and potentially providing motives for arson.

Smoke rising over a hundred kilometres away at the Sierra de Gata (Martin Kelsey
On the evening of the first day, with dusk descending prematurely, I stood on the plains west of Trujillo, looking north-westwards. On the horizon I could make out a rising cloud of smoke with then spread eastwards, as a narrow, pervasive sheet. The plains that evening seemed unusually quiet, nature seemed to be cowering, until, at last, as my respite two distant Montagu's Harriers quartered the barren evening landscape, whilst a flight of Mallard erupted from a hidden flash of water for their nocturnal forage. Life in silhouette against an almost apocalyptic sky.

Mallard heading off for nocturnal feeding (Martin Kelsey)