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Showing posts from 2016

This winter's tales

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This solstice and yuletide have gifted us a season of frosty mornings, cloudless skies and not a breath of wind. It has been warm enough to lunch outdoors, catching the winter song of Woodlark and the sliding whistling whoops of Spotless Starlings. Yesterday from the terrace of a restaurant giving views across half of Extremadura, we watched two Barn Swallows and a House Martin feeding alongside groups of Crag Martins.  At dusk, against the sound of Little Owls, I start to count the stars as they break into view, slowly at the beginning, but more and more punctuate the sky as the colour drains. Soon I surrender to the futility of the task and to the lure of the log fire.

Waking at seven, the night seems as dark as it will ever be. There is no sign of an eastern glow yet and a feast of constellations is spread above me. These are days to be out and to celebrate abundance. It is mid-winter and at no other time of the year in this part of Extremadura are there so many birds. And this is…

Transformations

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Daybreak on the plains north of Trujillo and finally the relief of heavy skies and shrouds of rain. Autumn made us wait this year, but as the landscape turned green in the space of a week, my friends' faces have become brighter: a transformation of mood as profound as that of their surroundings. I stand beside a shower of white Serotine Narcissus and look across the field, the gloaming of dawn extended by the overcast sky. Over two hundred Lapwing are evenly spread in front of me, facing the prevailing weather, taking long pauses between their almost mechanical strides. Beyond them, on a gentle rise, are what I first take to be a scatter of rounded stones, but as I struggle to get a better view through the raindrop-splattered telescope, one object shifts position and provides a view of a white belly, so close to the ground it appears to almost to touch it. Others make little shuffling movements and thus the stones transmute to Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a group of forty or more.


Few b…

Sierra wanderings

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The Almonte River is marked, after four months of drought, by a belt of bleached dull grey pebbles, a fossilised watercourse, with two shrunken still pools as signals of what once was. Crossing the river from the south, the road climbs a sandy, conglomerate ridge to overlook a vast bowl of dehesa, a landscape stippled by innumerable encinas, the indomitable holm oaks of the Mediterranean savanna. It is rimmed by the southern edge of the Monfragüe syncline: the barrier of 500 million-year old quartzites, lichen-toned crags erupting from the flanks of evergreen oak cover. From the ridge I can see my destination, the village of Serradilla, lying at the foot of this rim and to the west of that most emblematic of the ruptures across the quartzite, where the great Tagus River cuts past the massive Peña Falcón cliff: the southern gateway of the Monfragüe National Park.

Serradilla is that typical half-forgotten outpost, a dense pack of mainly single-storey white-walled, terracota-tiled homes…

A landscape takes shape

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The heat at the start of the month turned the landscape two-dimensional, sucking out depth and leaving it as a flattened canvass. As the shade temperatures hit 40ºC, nothing stirred. All creatures it seemed had found some solace in shade, whilst we retreated indoors.  Early September brought us the hottest days of the year, and sleepness nights too. Then change happened abruptly as we entered the second week, and for the first time I could step out of the door in early morning and become embraced by a shock of freshness. For the first time too, for many days, it was now comfortable to sit out and eat at night and we did so at the middle of that second week gazing at the glorious rhomboidal juxtaposition of a young Moon, Mars, Saturn and Antares.

Now we can rejoice a landscape again bearing form and solidity, an autumnal bite to a blue sky across which pass drifts of Spotless Starlings. Parties of these garrulous birds sit in the trees which now bear over-ripened figs, a starlings…

Bursting with bee-eaters

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Two birds set the scene at the moment more than any others, by their sheer ubiquitousness and presence. And yet, each summer the almost constant companionship they give takes me by surprise. One is the Woodchat Shrike. On a drive recently through a terrain of mixed habitats, where patches of dehesa woodland were giving way to the plains, it was the most numerous bird to be seen perched on the roadside fences. They perch with a bolt-upright stance, looking bull-headed with a teasingly slowly wagging tail. From the top strand of wire, they are afforded sufficient height to scour the sun-baked earth, with sight evolved to see through the mish-mash of conflictingly-angled dead grass straws for signs of movement. The shrike drops from the fence, becomes immersed in the brittle cover and emerges with a cricket in its hooked-bill, returning briefly to the same perch before taking a bee-line, in typical direct flight away from view. This bird was a juvenile, as indeed are most that I see at …

Bustard blessings

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Finding bustards in early August in a year such as this when the wet spring's legacy has left swathes of tall and brittle grasses is ultimately a question of luck. The first two hours of daylight offers the prospect of yield, for once the sun is high in the sky, the rising temperature forces all creatures on the plains into shade. Crested Larks gather in the dark beneath a manger, an Iberian Grey Shrike will find that wisp of shadow behind a fence post, shuffling into position on its barbed wire perch, and bustards plonk themselves onto the ground and pant. Taking a horizontal view across the fields, the surface bubbles with heat haze, thus converting distant cardoon thistle heads into those of bustards. Add in to this the perfect fusion now in colour of the dry vegetation with that of bustard plumage, then serendipity remains the only recourse.

And thus we were blessed yesterday. We made our first stop, just as the sun had capped the eastern hills and the pre-dawn greyness on th…

An early paseo

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The wise stay indoors and the heat drives the foolhardy inside anyway, so by mid-afternoon as the sun's force doubles back with even greater intensity with the radiant heat from walls, pavements and the baked ground itself, the villages of rural Extremadura appear even emptier than usual. The maximum temperature is reached at about seven in the evening and it only slowly recedes by the time people retire to bed. These last few nights I have pulled a mattress out onto the terrace and slept under the stars. I lie on my back and watch the form of bats caught briefly in the lights from the house, manoeuvering in different patterns, zigzags and straight lines. At stages in the night sounds awaken me - it is invariably fitful sleeping out: sometimes a dog across the valley, a Scops Owl or, just before dawn, a Little Owl. I might register the tock-a-tock of Red-necked Nightjars, whilst two nights ago well after a midnight the sky became full of calling Bee-eaters: already birds on the m…

Dragons in the heat

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The tussocks of rushes were armoured as porcupines, with their quill-like pointed leaves painfully pricking my bare legs as I entered the edge of the marsh. Fortunately I did not need to walk far, as the creature that I had disturbed on my arrival was soon back on the same perch, a fine male dusky blue Long Skimmer Orthetrum trinacria. This elegant dragonfly was first recorded in Spain in 1980, but is widespread in Africa and where I was standing is one of the best places I know for it. It remained perched, and I stood in silence, taking in its slender dark form, set between the two pairs of intricately venated wings. All the time it was moving its head, the thousands of facets in its compound eyes checking for movement in all directions. And then it sped off, unhesitant and direct. I tracked it with my eyes and watched as it darted between and around the tussocks, sometimes rising, but generally keeping on a fixed horizontal, before returning again to the same perch beside me. As I …

Of a swift and nightjar

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Undetected by our terrestial senses, there was evidently a vast resource of tiny prey items, an "aerial plankton"all around us on the crest of the ridge, as witness the surging groups of House Martins, rising to explore the eddies and whirlpools in the updrafts of air, where millions of tiny invertebrates were being trapped. With the hirundines, were the scythe-winged Common Swifts, pushing barracuda-like in a more predatorial mode, easing parallel to the contour, with a determination that contrasted with the House Martins' cheerful randomness.

From our vantage point we looked down and across a vast savannah of dehesa: the dense stippling of holm oaks over the undulating golden-blond pastures of mid-summer, a managed woodland that has become a landscape, typifying, indeed defining, Extremadura.  Solar-powered vultures used nothing more than the thermals of hot-rising air to lift them hundreds of metres into the air, giving them an advantage against gravity which would e…

Exploring eagles

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At first glance the Booted Eagle seemed in fixed position in the sky, motionless above us. But as we stood to watch it carefully, the bird was anything but static. To maintain its fix, it was performing a multitude of complex manoeuvres. The bird was head-into-the wind and unseen deliberations were accommodating wind-speed and its fluctuations, variations of direction, the lift it gave against the drag of gravity. The result of being stationary whilst airbourne came not through hovering, when birds are flying forward at the exact speed of the headwind, but more remarkably by gliding at the same speed. The bird made constant adjustments to achieve this: slight tilting of the tail, a flexing of the carpel joint on the left wing, a compensatory spreading of the primary feathers on the right-hand wing. The result was a sensation of fluidity, of both the air with its mysterious flows and eddies far beyond our ken, and of how the eagle responded - fine-tuned and sensitive. All the time whi…

Rain's legacy

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The cold wet spring has left us with a prolongation of colour which might be considered well-deserved following the onslaughts of sometimes torrential rain and the storms of the last few weeks. Now, as at last the temperature starts to catch-up, my fleece jacket is  consigned to the wardrobe and I can stand at the kitchen door at dusk, listening to the Nightingales and watching the first summer stars break through the gloaming. At the base of the wall beside the orange tree, whose blossom has cast a heavy fragrance to this corner of the house, headily mixed with a nearby jasmine, luminesence the colour of Spica radiates from the abdomens of glow-worms.  I count three in the space of just a few feet.

The spread of egg-yolk marigold yellow has created a mantle of colour in the dehesas and none so startling as that in a cork oak dehesa that I visited just a few days ago (see photo at the top of post). Where the harvested bark had been removed, the trunk which turns a mahogany red in the…

Bittersweet steppes

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It was the sight of the oddly dusky-looking bird of prey that made us stop and get out of the car. The prolonged glide on rather stiff, slender and angled wings with the slim horizontal form of the tail said Montagu's Harrier. But the dark sooty plumage, interrupted only by almost vestigial barring on the primaries was not the norm: we were looking at the very uncommon melanistic form of the species, indeed the second such individual we had seen that week.

It was the middle of April and thanks to this encounter there unfolded a series, a juxaposition of sightings that it would be hard to imagine happening anywhere else than Extremadura and all taking place from where we now stood, with the Sierra de los Lagares, the hill beside which our home nestles. in view and just twenty kilometres in a straight line from us.

Free from the confines of the vehicle, now parked in a convenient gateway, we looked across a small valley of pasture on soils so thin that the bedrock erupted from the …

White frost

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It was the last day of March and as we watched a small group of male Great Bustards on the plains south of home, it was clear that with the rather heavily overcast skies and an unusually chilly westerly wind, they were unlikely to start performing their extraordinary rueda or lekking display. Instead they hautily strode off out of view, leaving us bracing ouselves against the breeze and gazing across an empty field. It must have seemed a crazy suggestion, but stood unchallenged, when I proposed that we drive up high into the Villuercas Mountains, extolling the spectacular landscapes that we could discover there. Thus, we headed east, a relatively short journey, stopping for coffee en route and then climbing through belts of cork oak, cherries and sweet chestnut before entering the gaunt shapes of the bare Pyrenean Oaks.

It was as if we had moved back in time by six weeks or more. Half an hour's drive away were deciduous trees in full leaf, Bee-eaters and Nightingales. But at this…

An orchid odyssey

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Derek and Zena, Phyllis, John and Peter had asked me for a holiday focused on orchids in Extremadura and thinking about spectacle as well as diversity I recommended late March as the best time. In previous years they had challenged me on butterflies and dragonflies, as well as birds, so I was eagerly looking forward to this new odyssey. However, with the mild winter that we had experienced with some orchids already in flower in late January, I started to get rather anxious that the peculiarities of this year's weather might mean that the best was already over when Derek's group arrived.  I could not have been more wrong.  We have just completed an exhilarating and exciting exploration of our early spring orchids.

We started gently, combining birding on the plains west of Trujillo with a walk along a medieval drovers' trail. Here we encountered our first orchids of the holiday: Sawfly Orchids (Ophrys tenthredinifera), some Champagne Orchids (Orchis champagneuxii) and a sin…