Monday, 30 May 2016

Exploring eagles

Dark-phase Booted Eagle (John Hawkins)
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 whilst its muscles made gentle pulls at the bases of its feathers, triggered by a command structure of nerves and synapses, the focus of the bird itself was to the ground. Its head was determinedly pointing downwards, using the remarkable acuity of its vision to search for movement - whatever signal of potential prey.

A day later we were to witness the consequence of such scrutiny. Again a Booted Eagle was fixed poised high above us and, without warning, a singular contraction of the wings instantly changed its shape to that of an arrow-head. So fast was the stoop that it was hard to trace it with our binoculars and suddenly the silence was rent by the stridence of swallow alarm calls. From the Retama scrub just a few metres from where we stood, the eagle braked and rose and it took us a further few seconds to realise that it was carrying away its prize. A nearby sturdy concrete gatepost served as a plucking post and later as we examined the scene, amongst the tussles of body feathers were the unmistakable white-dotted, slender bluish tail feathers of a Barn Swallow.

Booted Eagles are, I think, the most brazen in their hunting stoops, verging on the obliviousness of the foolhardy. I have seen them plunge into the rank vegetation of the Madrid motorway verge, just behind a crash-barrier. Or entering a round-about at the edge of the city of Cáceres, I have been dangerously distracted by the  sight of a Booted Eagle dive into the ornamental shrubs in the centre of the roundabout's island. At times, as we watched Booted Eagles in their static glides, a bird would pull out of a stoop halfway and would jerk upwards to regain its position, just as if it were held by a puppeteer's string.

Perhaps the Short-toed Eagle excels even the Booted Eagle in this command of the air, habitually locking itself at even higher elevation, with strongly barred-tail widely spread. But frequently it lapses into a gentle hover, with its broad wings pawing the air softly as its vision seeks the shape of a slumbering snake.
Raptor Identification course May 2016 (Martin Kelsey)
Our exploration of eagles took the shape of a five-day identification course, focusing on the five eagle species here (and on two of the days we saw all five species), which combined long periods of waiting at advantageously sited viewpoints with serendipity. An example of the latter was our very first eagle sighting of the course: a fine adult Spanish Imperial Eagle standing on a manure heap with a motorway behind her. But it was the longer periods of careful observation, especially of birds in flight, that moulded our thinking about these birds. Thus the Spanish Imperial Eagle was more than the majesty of a dark-plumaged eagle with an emulsion-white leading edge to the inner wing and blond nape. It was a powerful raptor flying on level wing, fixed, determined and resolute.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (John Hawkins)

Golden Eagles, despite their heavier shape, flew with a beautiful buoyancy, gliding with uptilted wings, wavering on a central axis.  And we whooped too as we witnessed the sheer exuberance of Golden Eagles in their somersaulting sky-dance display.

But for me, always, nothing can ever match the exhilaration of the unannounced appearance of Bonelli's Eagles, the gripping combination of place and time. In a dramatic landscape of sheer valley sides, rocks and trees, the bird swings around the spur of the ridge, eye-level and without a flap rises from the valley side to circle three times above us. Then, allowing gravity's pull to almost suck it away from us, we watch this most enigmatic of eagles silently taking its leave as it follows the course of the valley. Gone from our vision, it leaves us speachless.

Bonelli's Eagle (Martin Kelsey)

Friday, 20 May 2016

Rain's legacy

Woodland the colour of orioles (Martin Kelsey)
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.

Glow-worm (Patrick Kelsey)
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 weeks after harvest, now half way through the nine-year cycle is blackened. The vividness of the contrast between the ground flora and the gallery of scarred trunks was that of a male Golden Oriole. It was a landscape with a boldness of tone that, like the bird, does not seem to fit into a temperate, albeit Mediterranean consciousness. It is a bolt of tropical brazenness. And indeed, as I stood the rolling, stroking liquid notes of oriole song curled out of the foliage and for one brief instance, a yellow and black dart-shaped bird ventured into my vision on a trajectory back into cover. So sought after by birders when they arrive in early April, by mid-May Golden Oriole song accompanies one along most woodland walks here.

Golden Oriole (John Hawkins)

For most of us this has been the wettest and coolest late spring that we can remember. The orchids have been extraordinary, with the late flowering species taking full advantage of such favourable conditions. Our very special variety of Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera var. almaracenis, known only from a few sites close to the town of Almaráz is been putting on a glorious show at the moment.

The Almaraz Bee Orchid (Martin Kelsey)

But there have been losers as well. The long spell of cold weather and heavy rain struck at a critical time for many birds, especially those with chicks in the nest. Ángel Sanchez, the Director of Conservation here in Extremadura has advised us that perhaps half of the breeding pairs of Bonelli's Eagles have lost their chicks this year - and this is a species already showing poor breeding success because of shortages of prey. Ground-nesting birds will also have fared badly. May this year has been extraordinarily dramatic, with ink-black skies and billowing colours.  The landscape pounds with vigour. Now as summer approaches we have a heady aftermath.

Mid-May 2016: storms over the plains near Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Bittersweet steppes

Melanistic Montagu's Harrier (John Hawkins)
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 sheep-grazed sward as jagged dog's teeth typical of the area. A light breeze carried towards me the short farting-sound of a displaying male Little Bustard, but it took me longer to locate the bird by sight: the sound carries much further than one imagines. Finally I found it, standing beside a small outcrop, its chevron-patterned nuptial neck feathers held erect like a cobra's hood, its head jerking backwards. This visual cue preceded by the differential between the relative speeds of light and sound its abrupt raspberry-vocalisation. The separation in time between our visual and audio experience of this display could not be a finer way of demonstrating the physics of light and sound.

Just a few metres from the Little Bustard, a Great Bustard was slowly making its way across the field. A female, lacking the spring-like rich orange of the male's lower neck and throat, but still appearing perhaps twice the size of the displaying male Little Bustard. On slow, considered strides it approached the Little Bustard and with a gesture of faint curiosity, lowered its head as it got closer and gave the Little Bustard a small shove. This was enough for the latter to move a few paces from its chosen spot and attempt to resume its luring of a female elsewhere.

To the right, by a small turn of our heads, we could see on a further slope a spendid male Great Bustard in display, quivering in its comical lumbering form, a tussle of white brilliance. Beyond it another male in stately gait reminded one of our party of a galleon in full sail: the bird did not seem to walk, rather it glided, sailed forward, its body hardly registering the momentum of the slow strides taken by its legs.

In the same field of view as the Great Bustard, we could see a pair of Rollers perched on an electricity cable, taking periodic flights on their broad, almost dazzlingly, turquoise wings. Around the adjacent barn, three Lesser Kestrels were hovering. Moving our glance a little more to the right, but without leaving the spot where we stood, we could see a pair of Stone Curlew, motionless with the sun catching the yellow base to the bill and the broad diagonal wing markings adding to the cryptic plumage.

The uup-uupping call of a Hoopoe made us swing leftwards, just in time to see a bird fly up from the exposed rock close-by. The soundscape was further added to by the sweet and musical song of Thekla Larks, whilst way above us thoughout the whole of our sojourn here, a Calandra Lark sang without a break.
Little Bustard calling (John  Hawkins)
And it was skyward too, that we could watch the smooth passage overhead of two Griffon Vultures and a Black Vulture, crossing the entire dome of the sky on a linear trajectory without a single flap of their wings.

Without moving a yard, we had become embraced by spring on the steppes of Extremadura. It was as exhilarating as it had been unexpected, and certainly unplanned. But as I stood my own sense of joy was dulled by the weight of apprehension. Knowing these plains as I do, today's experience whilst unlikely to be matched by anywhere else, was now becoming a rare gem here too. This could not be better symbolised by the cobra-necked Little Bustard. During the last few years, this species has undergone a catastrophic decline in Extremadura, for reasons still not fully understood. And for me now, every single encounter with this species is both treasured and bittersweet. The latter because it evokes in me a profound sense of loss and the desperation of helplessness.