Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bursting with bee-eaters

Juvenile Woodchat Shrike (Martin Kelsey
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 this time of the year. Their plumage bears little resemblance to that of their boldly marked parents, looking a faded grey-brown, but beautifully scalloped with fine greyish bars. Only the pale creamy rump presages that of an adult. The species is a common bird here, but their abundance in late summer and the way young birds turn up and seem to take up temporary territories in areas away from typical breeding habitat (such as the edges of the rice fields, or indeed, our garden) suggests both a dispersal from natal sites and, perhaps, movement of birds from elsewhere as part of the gentle roll of autumn passage.

Unlike the Woodchat Shrikes, the Bee-eaters are in groups, sometimes forty or fifty strong, either bursting from low perches and hawking by swoops and glides over the pastures, or wheeling high above, mingling with hirundines, constantly making that pulsating referee-whistle prrrrt. They too are everywhere, moulting adults mixed with the young, less burnished golden above, more damp moss green.

Adult Bee-eaer on left and juvenile on right (Martin Kelsey)

Other birds too are amassing. On the Alcollarín reservoir near home I made four carefully-chosen stops, each offering me different angles on the water body, thus to survey the whole expanse of water, and to take into account the sun's position to enhance visibility, I picked a morning when the wind would be light enough to avoid the water surface becoming choppy. With my mechanical counter at hand I scanned the view, focusing on just two species which have been gathering in post-breeding groups here. Great Crested Grebes loafed languidly in loose parties, many with their long necks resting along their back, a position which accentuated their pale, rounded sterns and recalling flotillas of moored dinghies with sails at rest. I counted through these groups and added in as well the occasional solitary bird, or pairs of adults accompanied by their now large, stripy-headed young, still noisily begging as soon as a parent surfaced from a dive. There were 830 birds all told.

The Little Grebes were far more challenging to count. A few birds were scattered in ones and twos, but almost all were in one of five packs. Quite unlike their larger cousins, the Little Grebes reminded me frenzied nervous shoals, tightly packed, surging uni-directional, and able to switch course in apparent unison. Briefly they might pause and slowly spread out, but halfway through my count, the group would flex and tighten and start again a froth of submersions.   The most intense activity happened when the flock was close to a bank, in shallower water where presumably the small fish they were hunting where themselves more tightly packed. It seemed to me that the grebes were exercising a form of coordinated hunting, driving the fish into the shallows. This attracted Black-heded Gull and egrets which waited at the water's edge, as they do when cormorants perform in the same way.  There was unison in behaviour too when a Marsh Harrier sailed close along the water's edge. Almost all of the group of over a hundred grebes submerged as one, leaving me only being able to imagine the submerged chaotic scene, and having to wait until the grebes had regained a semblance of calm before resuming my count. The tally at the end of the visit was 585 Little Grebe, a remarkable total for not a particularly large reservoir. Like my musings on the Woodchat Shrikes, I wondered where they had all come from.

A pack of Little Grebes (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Bustard blessings

Juvenile and female Little Bustards (Martin Kelsey)
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 the plains had been alchemised to a coppery gold. Five Great Bustards were striding in an uneven line across the field beside us, shoulder deep in the grass stems. Despite our proximity, they paid no heed and methodically were using the first hour of daylight to forage. Their focus was not in our direction and their trajectory ran parallel, rather than away, from us. We were ignored. Slow steps and heads tilted down in studied concentration, the briefest of pauses and then a strike, the head disappearing into the herbage to make a peck. Four of the birds looked like adult females, with rather slender grey necks. But with them was a bird identically marked, but no more than two-thirds the size of its companions.   It was a juvenile of the year, fruit of a mating between one of the displaying males that I had watched lekking on this same terrain four months earlier and result of the care and protection its mother had provided subsequently.

Two hours later as we were about to move on from the plains, an experience eclipsed even that one. Something told me that it may be worth checking a particular shallow valley where in the spring a Little Bustard had been displaying. On my visits there in late spring, the grass had grown so tall that despite hearing the display call I had been unable to locate the male responsible at all. The same valley had held two pairs of Stone Curlew, which had often been easier to find as they stayed close to the sparser vegetation amongst the dog's teeth of rocky outcrops.

We reached the place and tall, straw-yellow vegetation seemed an impenetrable barrier to our visual search. Easier to see was the Short-toed Eagle that was perched on a pylon, with a Roller adjacent, a reprise of an identical scene from the spring. But Mark caught some movement, and by extraordinary good fortune, he had found two Little Bustards. Not wanting to take his binoculars away from his eyes, so homogeneous was the field of view, that I had to attempt to follow his line of vision and search for how the birds were moving in the way that he was describing. Sure enough, there they were! They were frequently out of view behind taller or denser vegetation, but their direction was clear, moving down the slope and towards us.    

Little Bustards /(Martin Kelsey)
I paused and took stock. Beside us was a small pool, a stagnant dewpond, with steep rocky sides. It was clear to me that the Little Bustards were making their way in that direction in order to drink. We got back into the car and I drove just a few metres forward to a place where we were closer to the pool, but now less visible to the bustards. We sat and waited. The birds had disappeared from view completely. What we did not know was that whilst we sat there, the Little Bustards had moved in a wide arc and when they reappeared they did so on the bare ground lying between us and the water. They had swung round in order to access the pool from the side where there was a more gentle access.
Little Bustards coming to drink (Martin Kelsey)
Now at close quarters, we could see in perfect detail the fine and intricate vermiculated patterning on the upperparts of both birds and how the colour tones matched in extraordinary precision the dry dusty summer vegetation. But what was also clear was that one of the birds was smaller than the other, had a shorter bill and was a little less marked on the underparts. We realized we were looking at a female with its juvenile offspring. They dropped below the bank and out of view, we assumed they must have been drinking at the pool. Shortly they reappeared, bills glistening, with the bird we now recognosed as the adult female in the lead. They slowly ascended the bank of the pool and then the female made a short run and caught a large grasshopper in her bill. Immediately the young bird ran towards her and together they dismembered the insect. They rose to the top of a rise and were poised to descend the other side and out of view when something changed the mother's mind. She turned  and, with her youngster following, returned for a second drink at the pool. With their thirsts' finally quenched, they took the same path back up the slope and after pausing briefly at the crest of the rise, then dropped to the other side and out of view.

Little Bustards (Martin Kelsey)
We had barely spoken during this extraordinary encounter and I had found the experience deeply moving. Like the Great Bustards earlier in the morning we had been blessed with the sight and evidence of successful breeding - this young bird's father would almost certainly have been the male that I had watched on several occasions here in the spring, and once indeed with a female showing great interest in him. But in a more profound way, these Little Bustards had hit a deeper nerve. This is a species now considered at risk of extinction in Extremadura. A species that has almost disappeared, dramatically and precipitiously, under our very noses.  A species we had taken for granted has become the very symbol of the precariousness and fragility of the dry plains of western Spain. And here before us was a valient, vigilent and careful mother, guiding at each step a representative of a new generation of Little Bustards. No one could predict the future of this particular young bird - huge challenges and many dangers would lie ahead, but I clung to this symbolism of hope and prayed that somehow in the years to come others too would still find Little Bustards here.  

The final view (Martin Kelsey)