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Showing posts from 2017

A landscape for raptors

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I relish the sight of troubled skies, heavy smudged charcoal, brush strokes of cinder-grey. And never more so than above the open steppes of Extremadura, bearing subtle tones of emergent green now. Westerly winds roll the banks of cloud, which fracture to allow angled beams of light to illuminate a distant dehesa, like a moving searchlight. The combination of open terrain and a vast sky creates a multi-dimensional space fully exploited by one group of birds in particular, the raptors. The Extremaduran plains are bird of prey habitat par excellence

In the first hour of daylight on a winter's morning there is movement. Multitudes of small birds are woven across the pasture. Jerky Meadow Pipits are walking, a fluster of Skylark settles, small parties of Corn Buntings tic-tic in urgent flight above us. There are White Wagtails and Lapwings on the ground. Two Thekla Larks shuffle beside a lichen-dressed piece of ancient slate. An Iberian Grey Shrike faces us on the fence, using its …

False dawns

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The photos speak volumes...comparing the River Almonte in a normal autumn (this particular image is from 2015) with its sorry state this year. That joy that embraces all of us who live and work in the countryside of Extremadura as the autumnal rain arrives has been denied us this year. We have been robbed of an entire season, our second spring, that always brings such a sense of recovery after the summer and a more dramatic transformation of the landscape than is ever bequeathed in March and April.

There were false dawns that teased us. We have had three days with rain but separated by long anticyclonic lulls, and prematurely I wrote that autumn had arrived. In our sheltered hillside microclimate at home, yes indeed the land has slowly greened, but as soon as I venture onto the thin-soiled steppes, my demeanour changes and anxiety beckons. Those glorious golden summer tones of sun-dried grasses in the dehesas have senesced to a weary grey. Where sheep have grazed there are fields wit…

Walking on the Wild Side

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The immense quartzite crests rise above the gentle undulations of the red-earthed Tierra de los Barros, forming a landmark visible from a huge distance. The Sierra Grande de Hornachos, reaching over 950 metres above sea-level, is the tallest and most impressive of the sierras in the centre of the province of Badajoz. Looking at a relief map of Extremadura, these ridges appear as dispersed ripples, but stand anywhere is this vast landscape and you will see these sierras taking on the perspective of galleons, with Hornachos the flagship of the fleet. It both dominates and yet also gives out an aura of remoteness. Indeed, whilst conscious of its presence everytime I venture into this part of the region, I had rarely, unforgiveably,  reached out to explore it.

Crowning the western crest are the remains of  the Moorish fortress and tucked below it is the town Hornachos. From this vantage point the sense of isolation is profound and indeed, the town remained as an enclave of the Moriscos (…

Small is powerful

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It is a week since the first rains of autumn arrived. The moment the dust dampened we imbibed that familiar alluring scent. It even has a special name, coined by Australian researchers (who know a thing or two about droughts): petrichor. The distinctive aroma of rain as it breaks the drought is caused by two substances: oils from certain plants that become absorbed by the soil and also a metabolic by-product made by actinobacteria when the soil is wet. These actinobacteria act a bit like fungi, breaking down organic matter and enriching the soil. We depend on them, yet few of us know that they even exist. Only when we exalt in the petrichor do we have an unknowing sensory connection to them.  The scent of rain draws us to our roots. And, like when we gaze into the flames in a hearth or feel comforted by the embrace of savannas of the dehesas, it is a moment when that layer of modernity slips from our grasp.

Seven days on small changes are visible. Everywhere tiny green spikes of grass …

Local patches

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The sting at the tail of this long dry summer is merciless. There is no respite from the prolonged drought or the heat of the day. The rustic fatalism of rural communities means that in every encounter I have with neighbours or passers-by the conversation is framed by the parched, dustbowl of the plains or the shrivelled olives foretelling a disasterous harvest. People are forlorn: longing for the wave of autumn rains which remain stubbornly at bay. Signs of hope are remote - it moved me to find fresh flowering Merenderas, pink splays of petals, drawing on moisture stored in their bulbs, casting early morning shadows across the dust, as seemingly lifeless as the surface of the Moon.


But last week some solace was found in the environment of an urban park, right in the centre of our capital city, Mérida. We started at the magnificent two-thousand year-old Roman Bridge, spanning the Guadiana River,  the longest surving Roman bridge in the world. The river's name itself acts as a par…

Stand-by

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Summer clings on, despite the delicious freshness at dawn. The countryside is poised on stand-by until the first rains of autumn. The sound of August's piping Bee-eaters have long gone and replaced by the incongruous cheeping of Booted Eagles. Slowly circling against the porcelain sky, this aggressive small eagle utters a premigratory chitting call, recalling a slowed-down version of the cheeps of a day-old poultry chick. I hear this call in the spring as well, as pairs dance over newly established territories. Now it seems like a lament, to the vestige of their sojourn here in Extremadura.

There is barely no other movement. Clusters of House Martins on the wires disperse into a void during the day, and Red-rumped Swallows, now in family groups, descend in wide glides to nest sites to roost at dusk. But during the day, a heavy emptiness hangs over the olive groves and fields. Only the indefatigable Heliotrope is in flower, somehow finding sustenance in the dust. But sit and observ…

The sound of silence

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Returning to Extremadura after several weeks away and I am confronted by Lucifer, the name, I hasten to add, given to this year's Mediterranean blast-from-an-open-oven heatwave. Pleasure is found at dawn, when the air still feels fresh. I slowly walk on the plains, each footstep a crunch of brittle grass, as bundles of Calandra Larks twang across my view just a few feet from the ground. At the same height a male Montagu's Harrier is hunting, seeking signs of movement of possible prey in that narrow window of time before the heat pushes the rodents and small birds into cover. The subtly-changing hues of the landscape as the low sun rolls out have a transitional depth. In just a few hours, the light has flattened and we are left with a bicoloured impression: the remarkably uniform golden blond of the crisp dry herbaceous vegetation, set against the sombre green of the encina holm oaks of the dehesas. And above, an extraordinarily plain Dunnock egg-blue sky, empty of cloud and e…

Connections and reconnections

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Extremadura lies in the south-western corner of Europe, with depopulated rural communities and an extraordinary diversity of habitats, many with the dimensions of landscapes, holding globally important populations of certain species of birds. Last week, I visited Belarus in the north-eastern corner of Europe, thinly populated too, with landscape-scale ecosystems, also critically important for certain species. It was a journey which became almost a pilgrimage, a discovery of connections and significant personal reconnections.

My visit focused on three landscapes, all very different from anything I can encounter on my home turf in Spain. The first was the extensive water meadows of the Pripyat River, close to the small town of Turov in southern Belarus. Sometimes the river was visible, sometimes not, but always water was in view. Earlier in the year the river will have spilled over, creating a vast shallow lake, but now at the start of June, the waters had retreated to the meandering bra…

Rolling rolling rolling

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Dropping from its perch, the bird performs a low gliding arc, the presumption of which will be a sweeping ascent to another position, further along the line of electricity cables beside the road. Contrarian as ever, the bird breaks from this smooth curve, rises and then enters a chaotic, swerving motion. The wings appear yanked forcibly in opposing directions, causing the bird to wobble dramatically, widely spread they reveal a blast of electric blue, of breathtaking intensity, a vibrant contrast to the soft blue that occupies most of the plumage. This rolling action ends as the bird abruptly takes a perch - and it gives us the common name of the species, the Roller. It had joined its mate and they perched close to each other. They embark on a bowing display, heads held aloft, bills pointing almost vertically upwards and then a series of slow heavy nods, as if concluding some weighty discussion. Incongruous to the sophistication of their plumage, the call which accompanies the rolling…

A bee-eater with a difference

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I look forward to late April each year when the birding company Shetland Wildlife sends out a group to spend a week's holiday in Extremadura. They stay at our home, Casa Rural El Recuerdo, and I share the role of leading the group with my good friend Judd Hunt. I had not known Judd before we met about ten years ago in the Monfragüe National Park, but it transpired that we had a great number of mutual birding friends and we both birded in our adolescence in South Wales. I left the region in the late 1970s, but Judd lives there still and I always enjoy a catch-up with him on how the birds (and birders) are doing there now. Judd is not only a wonderful person, he is also a great guide and superb birder. He gained great acclaim last year when he found Britain's first Siberian Accentor.

It was the final full day of this year's tour and in the latter part of the week the weather had changed quite dramatically from hot and settled conditions to being cold and windy, with rain (a…

Encounters

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The Pin-tailed Sandgrouse slowly trundle around on the sparsely vegetated slope. They are distant but show well with that diamond-honed crystal light bequeathed to us during the short space between sunrise and the first vibrations of heat. Broad-shouldered, but small-headed, they peck at unseen objects, sometimes pausing to peer around, revealing the blast of orange-yellow on the breast above the pure white of their bellies. Suddenly they rise as one, giving a raucous alarm which seems utterly incongruous against the song of the Calandra Larks around us, a cry which would fit better on some coastal island or sea-cliff, gull or even auk-like. Showing remarkably dynamic flight, they lift as one, swirl and rise, becoming lost to our view against the clear blue sky. At the zenith of their ascent, the flock becomes a pyrotechnic, seemingly exploding like an animate firework, breaking into twos and threes and scattering in all directions. We become surrounded by the calls but the attempt to…

orchid trickery

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Spring comes tumbling in from the middle of March onwards in Extremadura, an avalanche of new birds: migrants fresh from a trans-Saharan crossing, busy and expectant. Indeed by early April I have had sightings of almost all of our summer visitors, apart from just a handful of notoriously later species. The few remaining winter visitors suddenly look out of place - Meadow Pipits appearing even more nervous and jerky than ever.

This is also peak orchid season in Extremadura, with the highest numbers of species findable that are in full and spectacular bloom. I can find orchids in flower from January to June, but late March and early April are when certain spots on the isolated strips of lime-rich soil become places of paradise. Few of these sites can be fairly described as scenic treats. Yes, I know of locations where one will find special orchids in gorgeous meadows surrounded by wild olives and imposing crags, on a slope affording views of eighty kilometres or more. But many of these…