Sunday, 30 April 2017

A bee-eater with a difference

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Judd Hunt)
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 (although a huge respite from the devastating drought that we have suffered this spring). We normally take the group high into the edge of the Gredos Mountains on the last day, to look for Western Bonelli's Warblers singing in the deciduous Pyrennean oak and Ortolan Buntings returning to their territories on the moorlands of broom scrub above the tree-line. But with the forecast of low cloud, a fierce easterly wind and showers our plans were quickly changed.

We spent the morning on the plains west of Trujillo, having the best views so far of Great Spotted Cuckoo and enjoying once more the medley of larks, with some Pin-tailed Sandgrouse thrown in. Then, after our picnic, eaten in the shelter of our vehicles, I suggested that we headed south-east to visit a pool which earlier in the week had delighted us with its show of Collared Pratincoles. A few waders had been present which would also be interesting to look at again, just in case other species had arrived. Struggling against a head-on wind, a quick scan showed that the pratincoles had gone, but the variety of waders had been enriched with the presence of a Temminck's Stint, two Curlew Sandpipers, three Sanderling and a Spotted Redshank, amongst the couple of dozen of Little Stint and Dunlin already there.

It was now mid-afternoon and pleased with the selection of birds we had found, I considered how best to make use of our remaining time. As we had driven through the rice-growing area I had noticed that some of the fields were now flooded, announcing that moment in the rice-growing calendar when the the spring landscape of parched, dry bare-earth transforms to a vast wetland as the rice gets sown. It would be worthwhile driving through this area in case we found places where there may be more waders feeding. I decided to take a short-cut through an area of dehesa, along a dirt track which would take us onto the rice fields. That track I knew would give us some good opportunities to see and photograph birds such as Woodlark and potentially Turtle Dove.

As we turned onto the track, I led the way and after just a couple of hundred metres stopped to watch a small group of Bee-eaters that were coming to settle on the fence in front of us. The bad weather was forcing them to prolong their perching and make fewer foraging sallies for bees. We watched two in front of us, their heads facing the wind, making minor adjustments with the line of the bodies to ensure balance. As they flew off, I drove on to let Judd and his group take up position to enjoy them whilst we slowly continued along the track. The track rose and descended and I stopped to wait for Judd to arrive, as we could now longer see his vehicle.  Suddenly my walkie-talkie crackled but the incoming message from Judd was inaudible. I replied "Can you repeat?". My mobile phone rang and I struggled to get it out of my pocket. It was Judd with what turned out to be a wonderful understatement "Hi Martin, I think I have a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater".

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Judd Hunt)
I reversed up the track until reaching a place to turn and parked up directly in front of Judd. He was pointing to my right and we checked the wires and trees: nothing. Carefully I got out and went over to Judd: "It's on the ground". And there it was, sitting huddled and rather miserable-looking, on a clod of earth, a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. We managed to get everyone in the team to see it and cameras worked overtime. This was the first time this species had ever been seen in Extremadura (and only the ninth time in Spain - see the other records here) so I sent a photo directly to some other birders in the region to tell them of the find. Judd described to me how he had been photographing the Bee-eaters and suddenly in the viewfinder of his camera appeared one which looked all green.  There was a bubble of excitement which rose as simultaneously we obtained as much documentary evidence as possible, whilst at the same time simply absorbing this unique moment. What struck me whilst looking at the bird was the sheer size of its bill, looking longer that the length of the head.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Martin Kelsey)

We watched until the bird flew off, moving further into the dehesa with the other bee-eaters. There are perhaps a million Bee-eaters in Extremadura - no one really knows - and they can be found almost anywhere. What were the odds of finding the one group in the region to which this rarity had become attached? Pure serendipity to take that particular track, along which we did indeed have some splendid views of Turtle Dove, although we never did see Woodlark. That is birding.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017


Bonelli's Eagle (John Hawkins)

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 locate and watch the flying birds becomes almost futile. The birds have succeeded in completely confusing our senses, we simply do not know which way to look.

On this occasion we are not the cause of the sandgrouses' panic and response, merely bystanders, witnesses. What drove this eruption is an immature Peregrine which wheels high and then glides in a slow descent. It too has had its senses bewildered by this deliberate impulse by the sandgrouse. It lands in the very same field that had been occupied by them and sits upright on a small stone to regain its composure. This bare gradient clings onto its lure for the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse however, for within minutes we watch the return of three clusters, about ten birds in all. Our telescopes pan from the Peregrine to the sandgrouse, now getting back to their quiet foraging and then back to the falcon.  But astonishingly we are soon no longer confronted with this choice since within the single field of view, we can watch the Peregrine standing proud whilst within just a few feet of him, the now nonchalant sandgrouse feed.

The object of their erstwhile fear and panic has transformed to a harmless onlooker. A Peregrine standing on the ground presents no threat, it has been disarmed.  The vigilants in the group pass the raptor without a second glance and then peer skyward, searching with a wit honed by evolution for the sign of a hunting raptor or the sound of other birds in alarm. Within the space of just minutes two separate encounters with the same individual hunter have elicited from the sandgrouse two contrasting reactions.

Our patience and willingness to stay put and wait had rewarded us richly, as it did a few days later. Early afternoon found us standing in front of a magnificent cliff, with aged wrinked rocks patterned by lichen blemishes.  But it had been slow, with few distractions apart from the effortless Griffon Vultures and some distant Alpine Swifts. But it pays to stay put. At last, that most evocative of eagles, the Bonelli's, drifted across the rock face. It is a species that appears without warning, more an ambush than an encounter. The complex patterned underwing with the blackish diagonal band, was shown to perfection against the etched quartzite backdrop. It gave an idle tussle with a Griffon Vulture as it passed and then rose above the skyline, turning in a wide arc. Nearby, in utter contrast to the eagle's engineered form, wheeled a gangly Black Stork, appearing all appendages: spindly legs hanging downward, the long red bill bourne by a lithe irridescent neck. But somehow by paddling the blackness of its wings, the stork managed to make a lunge towards the eagle. Ignoring this attempt, the eagle glided effortlessly along the ridge top, finding rest in a perilously-positioned holm oak. Hidden from view it may have been, but the stork had watched the eagle's passage and now made more composed elegant dives towards the crown of the tree, a bravura of mobbing before making its own departure from the scene.

Great Bustards (John Hawkins)

These encounters had offered drama, but let me relate another moment when we had also been silent witnesses, when the birds had been unaware of our presence, portraying a moment of charm and intimacy. It was another morning on the plains, we stood for an hour immersed in the courtship dances of lekking Great Bustards. The rivalry of the males had reached a peak and two individuals in particular, which had been staring at each other, head-to-head, started making lunges. This excited the other males present, causing more distant birds to charge over as spectators in expectation of what might erupt as a full bloodied-fight. One very large male that had displaying on its own, rushed over, its still inflated orange neck wobbling from side to side like a  monstrously obese belly. The flurry of attacks between the two rivals climaxed in sufficient physical contact for a richly patterned tail feather to drop in a see-saw motion to the ground. As the battle shifted, with the prancing males edging each other up the hill, the fallen feather distracted one of the spectators. He paused and looked down. There followed what can only be described as curiosity or even play. He picked up the feather in his bill and let it drop. As it settled, he picked it up again, released it and watched it fall to the ground. This action was repeated twice more before he strode away. For me the moment was precious, a tiny interlude, an encounter between the male Great Bustard, a feather and an unseen observer.

Monday, 3 April 2017

orchid trickery

Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) Martin Kelsey

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 sites are quite unprepossessing: scrappy corners of derelict land, litter-strewn roadside verges, thin weary almond orchards. I celebrate the presence of orchids in such places, a testament to their determination and mystery.

The name Orchid comes from the Ancient Greek órkhis, which means testicle, on account of the shape of the two tubers shown by some species. One of these tubers stores food for the plant, whilst the other is where the spring growth will occur. Orchids in our climate spend most of the year underground, using the warmth and rainfall of spring for growth, flowering and building up reserves for the following year. It is underground that the wind-blown and almost microscopic seeds encounter the fungi without which they cannot germinate, an intimate life-sustaining relationship invisible to our gaze.

The most intriguing and beguiling of them all are the bee orchids, members of the genus Ophrys. Unlike other orchids and other insect-pollinated plants where the pollinator visits through promise of a nectar reward, the bee orchids use blatant trickery. An extraordinary process of evolution has resulted in the flower mimicking the scent and to some extent the shape and colours of a female insect to bring the male in to land, vainly attempt to mate with it and then to leave with a dusting of pollen. The scent produced will be unique to a single species of insect, on which that orchid will thus depend, luring the male insect with the promise of sex.

Now is the time to see almost all of Extremadura's Ophrys orchids. A few, like the Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) are widespread and common, popping up with their joyful clown-like visages in meadows and along drovers' trails (see photo at top of post).

Some like the Early Spider Orchid (O.incubacea) and stunningly-patterned Woodcock Orchid (O.scolopax) can grow as tall slender plants, with flowers spaced along the stem.

Early Spider Orchid (O.incubaceaMartin Kelsey

Woodcock Orchid (O.scolopaxMartin Kelsey

The black and yellow of the Yellow Bee Orchid (O.lutea) tricks the eye in Golden Oriole-fashion, making the plant surprisingly cyptic.

 Yellow Bee Orchid (O.lutea) Martin Kelsey
The highly localised Bumblebee Orchid (O.bombyliflora) is so small and inconspiquous that one wonders whether its rarity is more about the challenge to simply detect it.

Bumblebee Orchid (O.bombylifloraMartin Kelsey

The commoner Mirror Orchid (O.speculum), also small in stature, has a bizarrely shaped flower when seen in close-up.

Mirror Orchid (O.speculumMartin Kelsey

Orchid taxonomy is both complex and fluid. Hybrids are frequent and some species produce variations in colour and patterning that both excite and puzzle the aficionados. Following locally accepted species, I have a special fondness for the Sombre Orchid group: O. fuscus, O. bilunulata and O.dyris. They stand modestly, as if awaiting your discovery, and so easy to overlook if they merely face away from your gaze. The Sombre group continues to yield more discoveries in Extremadura and more debate.

Sombre Orchid group O. fuscus Martin Kelsey

O. bilunulata Martin Kelsey

O.dyris Martin Kelsey
This Ophrys peak subsides as the ground dries and the temperature rises. In their place our focus shifts to the Serapias tongue orchids (also a fest of discovery and taxonomic challenges) as well as species at higher, milder altitudes. But the bee orchids have a swansong as I found, retracing my steps on a favourite path, weeks after my previous visit. Dessicated spikes that had bourne orchid flowers poked through withered brittle grass. I carefully walked through the crisp undergrowth until jolted by surprise with the mocking face, or so it looked, on a clean and fresh Bee Orchid (O.apifera).

Bee Orchid (O.apifera) Martin Kelsey

But nearby was something even more special. Thought to be unique to this hillside beside the town of Almaráz grows what is considered a form of Bee Orchid (O. apifera var. almaracenis), a deep blush, highly pigmented and thriving at precisely that time of year when its other cogeners were slowly shutting down.
Almaráz Bee Orchid (O. apifera var. almaracenis) Martin Kelsey

I left puzzled at what made such a distinct form to be described as a variation rather than true species, baffled by taxonomy. I wondered too whether the male insects tricked by such a distinctive-looking form would be the same as with the regular apifera. Had anyone analysed the scents produced by them? The Ophrys chapter had closed for the year, but questions that I could never answer remained.