Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Small is powerful

Emerging grass shoots (Martin Kelsey)

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 have now reached a height of two centimetres. Each one appears fragile but resolute, just a day or two old, emerging erect from the darkened soil. So small they are easily overlooked, but so powerful are they that the landscape will be changed. I mark out a square, five centimetres by five centimetres. There are about 70 tiny grass shoots visible. This means that in just one hectare, 280 million green spears have pierced the surface since the weather changed, and more will be following. In a few more days aided with the warmth of late October sunshine (and hopefully some more rain), our landscapes will be transformed. Green will return and we will embrace an emerald Extremadura right through winter and on to the eventual demise of spring.

Woodlark (John Hawkins)

The landscape changes in other ways too. Joining the transformation of colours and a clarity of the air, briefly laundered by clouds, there are new sounds. The sweet cadence of Woodlarks seems totally in tune with the freshness of the morning. I eagerly await this most uplifting of autumnal sounds. Robins have also arrived from northern Europe and their fluid winter song glistens like a resurgent stream.

Moisture in the soil has provoked other stirrings of small beings. We stood in the middle of a vast rolling expanse of open plains. Our journey had paused so that we could watch the drunken wheeling of a gathering of Common Starlings, just arrived from eastern Europe. Skyward we directed our binoculars, picking up the eccentric twists that the starlings were making. As we focused, the reason for these manoeuvres sunk home. Amongst and beyond the birds were myriads of particles, showing almost Brownian motion. As we concentrated a subtle buzzing or crackling sound could be heard. At first we assumed this came from the nearby power lines, but the timbre was not quite right. It issued from these tiny objects themselves, the sum of a countless mass. We were watching the alates of an ant: large winged-queens and multitudes of winged-males. The latter pursued the queens, seeking aerial bonding, which usually brought them sliding down to the ground. Their mission accomplished, wings were discarded unceremoniously by some mysterious disconnection of tissue.

Firecrest, photographed in March 2016 (Martin Kelsey)

Across the dehesas, barely audible high-pitched whispers help me locate a tiny bird which, shrew-like, is perpetually on the move from dawn until dusk in search of tiny invertebrates. Through the dapple of holm oak leaves, it rewards me with the briefest of glimpses, but never of the whole bird itself. The visual fragments fit together like a jigsaw and are crowned by the shock of black, white and red on the head. Firecrests, so aptly named, are also moving into Extremadura now, taking advantage of the landscape of trees and mild winter days. Food can always be found, even if the tiny size of the morsels means that foraging becomes their sole pursuit all day long. Across our region there will be tens of thousands of Firecrests this winter, so small that they too are barely noticed but also playing their role in shaping a landscape. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Local patches

Parkland beside the Guadiana River in Mérida (Martin Kelsey)
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.

Merendera (Martin Kelsey)

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 parenthesis to the Roman heritage: a composite word derived from the post-Roman Arabic word "wādī " meaning river, and a pre-Roman word "ana", also meaning river. Downstream on the western bank there is a strip of public park. Here watered lawns soothe the eyes and the clumps of ornamental trees offer pools of shade. It is an oasis in these times of drought. The riverbank is clothed by Typha reedmace. Across the park are playgrounds, paths and benches, refuge for the residents of the apartment blocks of the residential zones beyond.

David Lindo on his local patch, with friends (Martin Kelsey)

This green and watered land is refuge too for other denizens, a wonderful conglomeration of birds, attracted by the same elements as the people here: water, shade, the softness of foliage. The birds have places to forage in and rest. This is the local patch for my friend and colleague, the Urban Birder David Lindo. He lives just minutes from this park and when not working overseas, will stroll along the river bank here, downstream for a kilometre or so from the Roman Bridge. This is his beat, to reconnect after periods of absence to a local milieu, to track from day to day, week to week and month to month, the flux and change of the birdlife. Most birders have such haunts, a place where a such a depth of familiarity is achieved that in one's mind's eye each tree and bush can be visualised, regular perches for particular species recognised and one becomes driven by the anticipation of surprise and discovery. For many such birders, finding an addition to one's local patch list can be as exhilarating as seeing a bird for the first time ever. Despite only working this site for about three year's now, and with long absences abroad, David has already clocked up 115 species in this short stretch of parkland and riverside.

Migrant Pied Flycatcher in Mérida (Martin Kelsey)
As we strolled through the park, both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers were making use of the dappled shade to dart out on fly-catching sallies, Hoopoes probed in the luxury of recently watered turf, whilst Willow Warblers seemed to lurk in almost every corner. We stood and watched a migrant Tree Pipit as it sauntered in bouyant gait at the edge of tall grass. Bird on passage, stocking up their reserves prior to their trans-Saharan crossing are present across the region at the moment, but those who had paused to feed here struck me as especially privileged. It is very likely that many of these individuals will remember this oasis beside the Guadiana, amidst the streets, stone and concrete of the city and be here again in a year's time - to be watched again by the Urban Birder.