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Showing posts from 2018

The evening of the day

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On two pylons hundreds of Spotless Starlings bead the cables and festoon the structures, waiting for the moment to make their descent to the roost. The sun is sinking, the western sky slowly blushes like a bed of embers, as the foreground becomes increasingly monochrome and detail fades. Sound become as important as sight. Reedbeds always host strange utterances from creatures hidden from view. There is a satisfied rounded squeal from a Water Rail. A Purple Swamphen gives an explosive trumpet blast. A Bluethroat tut-tuts. Movement continues as Great White Egrets arc inwards, swirling on stiff half-opened wings to descend into an area of vegetation just to my right. Packs of Jackdaws noisily "jakking" clear from the cables and twist into the same area of reeds. Cattle Egrets are streaming in as well. The combination of black and white: Jackdaws and egrets, seems perfectly matched and assorted, echoing strangely the image of the earlier flock of Lapwings.

Many species of birds …

Farewell to the Tree of Love

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Standing on the eastern side of our drive, with the house as a backdrop, the Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum bestowed a breathtaking performance each spring. From its bare and twisted twigs buds erupted into candyfloss-pink pea-like flowers. The blossoming tree drew admiration and from afar became a beacon, networking as it were, with other Judas Trees that had been planted beside the old houses, that like ours, had been small wineries (Lagares) on the hill which became thus named, the Sierra de los Lagares.

For the ten-days or so of the flowering period, this visual spectacle was also audible. Standing close to tree, with my eyes shut, I would be wholly enveloped by the warmth of the sound of thousands of honey bees and carpenter bees, feeding well into the spring evening on the nectar it gifted them. It was like an embrace of sheer life and vitality. As the flowers dropped and carpeted the ground below the tree, forming rosy drifts of petals, the leaf buds started to open, a success…

Autumn comes in waves

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This wet and stormy autumn has brought waves of change, dramatic in a way never matched by the unwrapping of spring. Our rewards for leaden skies, racing clouds and rain a-plenty have been a succession of simple, pleasing markers.  By mid-October the landscape transformed from beaten and scorched aridity to an almost Celtic green. Late October gave us the white blankets of autumn bulbs in flower: Serotine Narcissus and Autumn Snowflakes. Into November, rocky valley-sides became dusted yellow: a profusion of Autumn Buttercups (Ranunculus bullatus). We pass through abrupt episodes of colour, a race through a second spring, with successive bands of single hues.

And so with the arrival of birds: October witnessed surge in the flow of Common Cranes coming into Extremadura, with concentrations feeding in the damp stubble fields of maize and rice, providing spectacles which have well exceeded those in the last two years, when we suffered autumn droughts. And now, in these days of mid-Novembe…

Living autumn

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The months of October and November are the most critical in shaping the seasons ahead. After the slumbering stasis of summer, it is autumn when both figuratively and in a real sense, the flood gates open. Or should - because if the rain does not materialise, the forthcoming winter will be filled with a grey despondency, across both the landscape and eating and gnawing into the very psyche of the rural folk.

This autumn people are walking with a spring in their step. So far this season we have had already had over four times as much rain as last autumn, with plenty more expected over the next few days. This figure is based on the daily rainfall measurements taken by my good neighbour, Peter. He tells me that so far this year we have received 635 mm of rain (which is higher than the average rainfall for London, UK). The result has been a feast to the eyes that could not have contrasted more with the bleakness of last year. Rivers that were dry until early March  are already flowing. We…

High altitude visitor

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Relicts of late spring, the bristling ranks of taut, brittle thistle heads stand proud over the crisp, withered grasses. Ashen-coloured tumbleweeds of wild brassicas roll on the side of the track. Save the improbably tall and spindly flowering spikes of Sea Squill which fleck the terrain, the plains are a landscape at rest.

It is an open stage, apparently empty, under an intense ocean-blue sky which carries an autumnal freshness. Cooler nights have driven the haze of summer away and the parched landscape now looks burnished russet, almost apricot gold, instead of the grey blond of August. The sweet melodic song of a Thekla Lark gently dominates, the rather stocky-looking bird slowing circling high above us. We are distracted only by the bubbling purr of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Four swing in front of us, in direct low flight, barrel-bodied with agile, pointed wings, the white flash of the underwing in sharp contrast to their black tummies. They head to a small pool in the centre of a…

Gentle dawn

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There was no fanfare of bird song to greet dawn on the plains this morning, just the caress of distant sheeps' bells. Late summer days start gently. I stood to watch the roseate sun break the horizon and rise until the orb was entirely in view, with just a gossamer strand of cloud breaking its purity. In lieu of sound there was purposeful motion. Strings of Cattle Egrets ventured forth from their roosts in search of grazing sheep, probably heading back to same field that they foraged in the day before. Packs of Spotless Starlings sped low across the flaxen dried grasses, landing too amongst livestock. Almost all appeared to be juvenile birds, entering puberty as it were, with the oily black feathers of adulthood growing amongst grey brown juvenile plumage, like adolescent bumfluff on the chin. A male Montagu's Harrier crossed my vision, in a long low glide, wavering in unseen currents, without a single flap of the wings, until it banked and turned, plunging out of sight.

Ther…

Visitors

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Stealthily under cover of darkness they move. And finding them in the first light of day helps me break the stasis of summer.  The season seems sluggish by the end of July. The afternoon spike of heat pushes all life to siesta. All appears still, even the sky is empty. The nights are relatively silent, compared to the amphibian and strident mole cricket choruses of late winter and spring, a gentle soporific hum of crickets broken only by the monotonous poot of Scops Owls. And yet across the skies at night, birds are moving.

Remarkably, shorebirds that were in the Siberian arctic perhaps just a couple of weeks ago are opting to cross the interior of the Iberian peninsular, rather than follow coastlines down to their African destinations. We came across yesterday a group of 13 Curlew Sandpipers,  all still showing their russet summer dress. They were feeding alongside some Little Stints and Dunlin. All were adults that had already finished nesting, or had failed to do so successfully, …

Two mornings with dragons

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I almost gave up before I arrived. Despite the promised sunny weather (from two independent meteorological sources no less), the day dawned heavily overcast and windy. I had given myself two mornings to visit two riverine sites to explore for dragonflies. The expected temperatures were going to be ideal: warm enough for insect activity but not too hot to be a constraint on my activities. Last year with the prolonged heatwave we suffered, I visited the Guadiana River in search for dragonflies and had to adjourn to the car every ten minutes to drink cold water, so fierce was the mid 40sºC temperatures.  However, the low cloud was not encouraging and halfway on my journey I was poised to turn back, but something kept me going. Providence or serendipity - either way, I arrived at my first stop with the clouds breaking and sunshine bringing life and reflections to the riverside.

I was at the Ibor River, a tributary of the Tagus in eastern Extremadura, fed by streams from the gloriously fo…

By the riverside

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Spring ended with a thump. Suddenly we are where we should be in middle of June: summer, with cloudless skies and crispy dry blonded vegetation. Yet, just over a week ago this extraordinary stretched-out spring gifted us moderate temperatures, clouds and meadows still looking like an artist's palette, chaotic in colour. A whole cycle has spun slower this year. Plants have flowered later (our olives are still in blossom), fruits are several weeks later than normal. But the cool and damp spring held butterflies at bay.

I spent most of the day walking along the banks of the Guadiana River, the second great watercourse through Extremadura. It moves sluggishly east to west across the northern half of the Badajoz province. Helped by temperatures close to 40ºC, it had a truly tropical feel about it. It reminded me rather of the Nile in southern Sudan. There is a gallery woodland of poplars, ash and willows, with stretches of exotic eucalyptus as well. Giant reeds stand bamboo-like and, …

A final fling

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There was a communion. We watched the Great Bustard in full display and the fresh westerly breeze trembled his splay of white feathers. Touched by the wind, the tall flowering grasses of early May swirled. The same wind caressed our faces. Elements shared, and I felt strangely connected to this rather preposterously strutting bird. The lone male Great Bustard was thigh-deep in rocket, bugloss and galactities thistles: yellow, purple and pink.   His neck was swelling in testosterone driven frenzy, tumescent and almost reaching the ground. It was medicine-ball in both shape and colour: a rich russet with a creamy buff V creating a divide in the centre. Narrower black strips appeared at the side, where the feathers had parted. Nuptial whiskers were standing erect, looking like ear tufts. With his tail pushed flat across his back and his wings seemingly twisted as if double-jointed, he had become from the rear a pyramidal white fluster. His display was punctuated by stochastic jerking mo…

Tracking the rare

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Birding is thriving in Extremadura. This is driven partially by the numbers of people visiting through "turismo ornítologico" - the rather formal-sounding Spanish description for people coming to Extremadura for birding holidays  - but mainly by the growth of birding amongst those who live here, especially young people. There is an email forum with several hundred participants. All this translates to a huge increase in the number of person hours that are being spent in the field, both in terms of participating in survey work and censuses (such as the annual Common Crane census), engagement with eBird (now holding over 13,000 submitted checklists) or simply birding.

Couple this with digital photography, better optics and access to first class information, the quality of the observations and increasing skills of the observers, are, I am sure, also improving. And through this, so more and more scarce or rare species are being reported.

A group of us felt that it was time that E…

The reassurance of spring

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Conclusions of recent research on wildlife populations across Europe make for seriously depressing reading, especially for those of us with memories of what things were. Even in Extremadura, where the populations of larks and Corn Buntings appear still robust, my own notebooks carry testimony of the collapse of species such as Little Bustard and Montagu's Harrier. Rachel Carson's arresting image "Silent Spring" has been retrieved by journalists. And so I face this spring with anxiety, foreboding.

The rains only started at the end of February and to date we have already received  since then 86% of last year's entire total of rainfall total recorded in the immediate vicinity of our home. Whilst the landscape now looks luxuriously green, it was striking how the wetter and colder weather delayed flowering of many early species this year and how few butterflies were on the wing in the first half of spring. The result has been bittersweet: water resources have recovere…

Recovery

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It has been an extraordinary transformation. Just over two weeks ago the horrendous drought broke and we have barely had a day since when it has not rained. Indeed, in this month alone (and we are only half way through it) we have received over 65% of the rain that fell in the whole of last year. Rivers that had ceased flowing last spring have come back to life, with water thundering down their watercourses.


Pools have appeared on the plains and following rain, whole slopes glisten with the run-off, tracing the routes taken by livestock. Land that had been grey and weather-beaten, bereft of hardly any growth apart from resilient sand crocuses, are once again green and spangled by daisies, marigolds and crucifers. Grim visages have been shed and even the most dour of those who live from the land exalt the promise of a spectacular spring.


During this period, the rain has been accompanied by Atlantic winds, sweeping across the meseta of south-western Spain. Banks of heavy clouds unroll …

Circles

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With an unaided eye, they appear like dense, floating mats. There are four of them visible on this small water body, along with a selection of busy evenly-scattered ducks: up-ending Mallards, pootling Shovelers, diving Pochards and Teal nibbling at the water's edge. But there is something about the motion of these mats that intrigue: they are alive. With binoculars the species responsible is instantly recognisable. With brilliant white bows, toffee-brown flanks and bottle-green heads, the drakes are Shovelers, and they seem to outnumber the females. And I become spellbound at what they are up to. 

These boldy patterned concentrations of Shoveler are circular in form and are spinning anti-clockwise. These duck mats vary in size, but the one I am watching has over 40 birds. Shoveler swim in to join the cluster, becoming tightly embedded into its form. Almost all of the birds have their bills, or even whole heads, submerged, whilst those in the middle are upending. It is almost as i…

Tented colonies

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I am standing beside pasture in late winter, facing the low sun, and watching the light refracting from silvery patches that freckle the field. They glow like medallions on the green baize of the meadow. I approach one and bend down to take a closer look. The structure is a canopy, closely woven, holding tiny globules of dew which collectively provide the silver sheen on the web. But I am more curious of its inhabitants, for below this tent squirm several hundred tiny caterpillars. They are the Winter Webworm, the larva of a tiger moth Ocnogyna beatica, a species of the western Mediterranean basin.


Hatching in the middle of winter, they spend the first few weeks of their lives in these tented colonies. Their diet is catholic, consuming the winter greens of fresh foliage of clovers, mallows, vetches and mustards, and probably pretty much anything else growing around them. It strikes me that these veiled tents under which they are domiciled not only protect them from hoar frosts, but mu…

Returning north

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I have seen a couple of Barn Swallows already this month, and they are most likely to be early returning migrants rather than overwintering birds, but it is still mid-January and, as the proverb says one (or even two) swallows do not make a summer. However, one clue that happened yesterday as I was hanging out the washing was an incontrovertible signal that the wheels of seasonal change are starting to roll - and it summoned a tinge of sadness within me.

The sun had yet to break the horizon of the hills to our east, but the House Sparrows were stirring with their chirruping waking conversations. Above this sound came another. It too was conversational but more strident and urgent. It was the honking of geese. Then from the south, and crossing my field of vision, was the skein. This was no short-distance foraging foray. These birds were flying high and with a purpose. They were returning north, Sightings of geese over our garden are exclusively birds on migration: in October and Novemb…