Saturday, 31 October 2015

Tilled and tidied

My huerto (Martin Kelsey)

I confess that too often it takes second place and suffers an inevitable neglect. But there are few places that give me such a sense of satisfaction as my little vegetable garden, my huerto. Lying just in view from our main gate, at the base of the slope carrying our olives and beside the ancient pond, is my fenced-off plot, probably well less than half the size of a standard British allotment (which is ten poles - a wonderful old measure dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and about 250 square metres). It is in summer when my visits are daily: each evening to check the irrigation for the tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. As winter approaches, the peppers are still prolific and tomatoes hang from their vines. But now, as in early spring, is the time for the major tasks. But opportunities are scarce. On days of fine weather weather there will be the competition with the allure of exploring further afield, often with guests, finding birds and other wildlife in woodland, plains, the rice fields and mountains. But I will have to find days, like yesterday, when it is fine and the sun is shining, with the soil recovered enough from earlier rains, but with the prospect of wet days ahead. It was now or never.

My task was to fork in the manure from our chickens into as much of the plot as possible and follow that with the sowing of broad beans and planting of garlic. The latter job was a tad bit on the early side to do, but looking ahead over a busy month ahead, I could not be sure of otherwise getting the garlic in before mid-winter. The soil was in perfect condition to dig and it took less time than I had expected to have forked over the whole plot, save where the tomatoes and peppers still stood (that I will leave for later) and the portion holding rows of spring brassicas.  As I left the huerto at the close of the afternoon, two rows of garlic and four rows of broad beans were settled-in in the freshly dug soil, I had picked some peppers and the cabbages had been hoed. There was a fundamental sense of creating stepping stones in time: the large beans placed in the ground, waiting for the emergence of their germinating shoots in a few weeks time, checking their growth in early spring, picking the large pods in early May, shelling and freezing the anticipated kilos of beans for eating.

My love of growing vegetables is almost as long as that of my feelings about nature and it was my father that got me hooked. I especially remember though on long summer holidays to my maternal grandparents' smallholding, understanding the sense of rotation and annual cycles and the appreciation that with a wise choice of plants grown and careful storage, one could be almost self-sufficent. For them this was not the result of indulging in a lifestyle choice, this was from necessity and tradition in a small rural community. It was John Seymour who wrote that small well-looked-after cottage gardens produced vegetables every year over centuries.  It hit an almost romantic nerve in me: a total admiration of what care and nurturing could yield from the soil. I spent six months after leaving school working on a smallholding in Wales where my responsibilities were the vegetables and hand-milking their Welsh Black cow, whose name was Brenda.

There on that Welsh hillside, a pause from the task gave me the chance to watch Common Redstarts in the sessile oaks, or Buzzards soaring over the magnificence of the Welsh marches. Here too in my huerto in Extremadura there is always reward too. A Cetti's Warbler sang as I worked and overhead drifted Griffon Vultures and a wintering Red Kite. Without any particular effort, I have found no fewer than ten species of amphibians and reptiles in the vegetable garden over the years, as well as relishing other distractions from Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Hawfinches to Golden Eagles and Black Storks.  It is simply another gifted chance to be outdoors.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Vanguard of grey

Recently arrived Common Cranes and Greylag Goose (Martin Kelsey)
It had been a month since I had last been down onto the rice fields in the centre of Extremadura. Then the harvest had just started with the caterpillar-tracked combines surging through crops heavy with dangling ears of grain. There were throngs of Red-veined Darters. Now with the harvest nearly finished, the dragonflies were absent and a new arrival had set the tone. As I arrived in early morning light, turning off the main road to take a small track beside the paddy fields, the first birds I saw were standing several fields back, testiment to their stature, From this distance two things struck one immediately: their distinctively sloping shapes and greyness. They were Common Cranes and no visit now to these fields for the next four mouth will fail to offer me such encounters.

As I watched them, the silence was broken by brusque and insistent trumpeting as two more cranes approached, appearing to stroke the very air by their graceful, gentle shallow wingbeats. Four others were following some way behind. Against a morning sky of light cloud, again greyness was the tone. Over the next two hours as I slowly made my way across the fields, driving slowly for about twelve kilometres, I counted a total of 796 Common Crane. The grey vanguard had well and truly arrived. They were not my first cranes of this autumn. Since the 7th October, I had seen skeins passing south over the house. But this was my first day out at a key wintering area for them. After submitting my count to the coordinator of the Crane Working Group in Extremadura (a group of crane freaks to which I happily assign) I heard just minutes later than this had brought the total partially counted so far in the whole rice-growing area to over 14,000 birds). This suggests that the arrival this autumn has been earlier and stronger than usual, which others have remarked on too in a more anecdotal way.

There were other differences too from my last visit: a few Scandanavian Greylag Geese were also present with the cranes on the stubble fields, Bluethroats teased one with glimpses as I passed muddy ditches and Water Pipits were present on muddy margins.

The previous day I had returned too to the Alcollarín Reservoir, which I had also neglected over the last few weeks. On my way there from home, I crossed its namesake river, which for months had been nothing more than a strip of dry grey-dusty gravel. Water was now marking its course. The water-level of the reservoir itself looked as low as it had in late summer, but there were some immediately obvious differences. As I looked along the strandline, I searched in vain for parties of passage waders, indeed the only birds present there were a few Green Sandpipers. Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Great and Little Egrets were there as usual, but now many of the ducks on the open water were returning to full breeding plumage, especially so the Mallard (with almost a thousand birds present), although the dozing raft of Shoveler in the deep water near the dam were still mottled by eclipse. I made my way parallel to the western shore, pausing to watch a Firecrest in an encina, and reached a vantage point. A crowd of Common Coot scuttled off from the shore and headed into the water to the south-east of my position, hard to see against the sun. Looking in the other direction, there was a group  of a dozen coot, a bit further away and seemingly oblivious to my presence. I repositioned myself, back to a tree to hide my outline and settled down to scan the water before me. The coot lured me, however, so I took a closer look at them. Quickly I noticed that one bird was different. Its bill was more bluish and appeared a bit longer and its white-shield above the bill seemed heart-shaped. Luckily the birds remained in good view for long enough for me to check other features to confirm my suspicions: sideways-on the shield met the base of the bill as a smooth curve rather than a deep inset and just about I could make out the reddish buds at the top of the shield itself (which produced the heart-shaped image): it was clearly a Red-knobbed Coot. This is a species that had not been recorded in Extremadura before 2008, but since 2012 it has been recorded annually with increasing sightings each year. These have been of marked birds (which had been bred in captivity and released as part of a reintroduction programme in elsewhere in Spain) as well as unmarked and presumably wild-bred birds. There had been an unmarked individual at Alcollarín last winter, as well as a sighting of a marked bird there in early spring.

Red-knobbed Coot (second from right) with Common Coot at Alcollarín (Martin Kelsey)

This site never leaves me disappointed and as I left, a heavy female Peregrine flew along the shore, creating a surge of commotion amongst the waterfowl. I watched her until she disappeared behind the slope of the wooded hill beside me. She too had been checking out the joint.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

An exploration of landscape

Watercolour artists in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

It was a summer that seemed never-ending, but the plunge into autumn, although a good month later than last year, has nevertheless been dramatic. Warm and sunny weather had three interregnums over sucessive weekends of rain. For the last two weeks we have hosted budding watercolour artists on a landscape painting course run by Peter Delahaye and during that time, each day in different settings, we explored by observation the shapes, shades and shadows that comprise landscape. Ever since my childhood, thanks in part to my father and also to the freedoms to explore, to discover and nurture patience, I strive to feel landscape, its myriad of parts and how they sum together. Watching for movement, picking up sound and colour. My media have been the pen and a camera and so it was an adventure to take the artists to our carefully selected sites and witness their own encounters with Extremadura.

Amongst the olives (Martin Kelsey)
From the challenge of interpreting slopes that descend and then rise, carrying ancient olive trees with their anguished trunks, to the proportions of distant mountains seen across undulating plains, the reflections of rock emerging from peaceful pools to folded strata multi-coloured by lichens, I watched as palettes were worked to find the colours that lay before us. And over the two weeks of painting, so the colours themselves changed. It seems nothing short of a miracle the transformation that is Extremadura's autumn. By the end of the first week, tiny green grass shoots had started, like shards of glass, to cut through the barren soil, emerging through the criss-cross of grey-blond dry vegetation, remnants of a distant spring. As the second week finished, the landscape bore a fresh green wash. The preciously ephemeral Autumn Snowflakes and Autumn Squills which had been early messengers of the change to come were now joined by vast swards of Serotine Narcissus, white carpets lying between the evergreen oaks of the dehesas.

Autumn Snowflake (Martin Kelsey)
For me nothing has epitomised the change so well as the onset of a passionate, almost melancholic, liquid song that has poured from the sky. The autumnal song of Woodlarks, delivered by these stubby-tailed, small larks on a wide, slow-circling flight had greeted us from above the house as we set off each morning and then at every stop we made in places of open woodland, olive groves and dehesas. There has been an urgency in their singing, so the birds have been aloft against both clear blue skies and in heavily overcast conditions too. I cannot stop myself, ever, from pausing to soak-in the sheer simple and poignant beauty of this sound.

As all good and patient observation does, the encounters the artists had with landscape became a personal exploration too. For some it had been the first time they had painted since childhood, indeed the first ever some claimed. The results were a fascinating mixture of figurative and abstract approaches, drawn from the encouragement to explore and experiment. It was a reconnection with self and careful witness of the dynamic of natural landscape.

On the edge of the plains (Martin Kelsey)