Thursday, 19 April 2018

Tracking the rare

Common Tern - a scarce species in Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

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 Extremadura followed the example of some other regions of Spain and established a local Rarities Committee, to work with the local recorders as well as the national body, to ajudicate on records submitted. Thus would be established an independent and objective verification of sightings of unusual birds. This would ensure that the key information concerning records would be standardised and stored,along the decision from the ajudicators. Records of birds that are considered as national rarities would still require acceptance from the national rarities committee, but perhaps what is most interesting would be the monitoring through the local committee of the changes through time of the status of scarce species in Extremadura.

The first report is now available and you can see it through this link. It has been achieved through some quite considerable hard work, aiming to review not just records from the last couple of years, but following up records dating back almost twenty years. There is still a backlog of old records to be reviewed and incorporated, and I urge anyone with records of any of the species listed by the Committee to submit them (which can be easily done on-line). Over time the annual report will be more and more focused on the most recent.

The number of records received of certain species  such as Audouin's Gull, Mediterranean Gull and Ring Ouzel are such that they can no longer be considered as rarities in Extremadura. The latter is clearly a regular passage migrant, with stopovers especially in Badajoz province, with small numbers probably overwintering there regularly. With the advent of eBird recording, the ongoing situation of these species can be monitored.
Cream-coloured Courser May 2017 (Carlos González Villalba)
Some species in the report are particularly intriguing. Last year, Cream-coloured Coursers were recorded from three different locations in Extremadura during May. Two of these locations involved pairs of the species. Last year also saw breeding of the species in mainland Spain, for only the third time. Did the species breed in Extremadura as well last year? No one knows. Are we seeing the start of the spread of this North African species into the Iberian Peninsula?

The acronym for the Extremadura Rarities Committee is CREX (Comité de Rarezas de Extremadura). which is also the genus of Corncrake. The report includes records of this species too. The evidence from injured or dead birds found suggests that Corncrakes (whose Spanish name means the Quail's guide) pass through Extremadura at the same time and in the same habitats as migrating Quail....but a healthy, live Corncrake has never been seen by a birder here. Now there is a challenge!

The next report will be published sometime in the first quarter of 2019...and without spoiling the ending, I can tell you that there will be some more fascinating discoveries. Take a look at the website for updates of unusual birds being reported in Extremadura - and if you find something yourself, do send in the record!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The reassurance of spring

Bee-eater (John Hawkins)

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 recovered, the middle spring plant growth looks set to be magnificent, but early breeding birds, especially raptors, have taken a big hit. Nest failure among the Griffon Vultures has been massive.

Barbary Nut Iris (Martin Kelsey)

And yet for most of the migrant birds, the phenology of spring unfolds predictably. As I write I can hear a Nightingale singing in the garden. It arrived yesterday, pretty much on cue. This first week of April has seen the flood of Bee-eaters, creating a buzz of excitement in text messages and social media as, with extraordinary synchrony, people hear their heralding calls and catch glimpses of their bounding flight across the region and beyond. Notwithstanding our anxieties, the resilient return of migrant birds generates a sense of reassurance and relief. Whilst there are survivors, there is hope.

Black-eared Wheatear (Martin Kelsey)

I stood at one of my favourite places on the plains, jagged dog's teeth of rock erupting from the thin soil, which now has a green mantle becoming increasingly polka-dotted by colour, A newly arrived Black-eared Wheatear perched on one of these rocks, its quiet song interrupted only with periodic drops to the ground to snatch and pound a caterpillar. Its buff-sandy body spoke of deserts. Just a couple of metres away, a Northern Wheatear en route between the Sahel and the mountains of Central Europe had also paused. Looking in the other direction, I could see a male Little Bustard jerking its head backwards as it give its courtship call, while a small party of Great Bustard crossed the same field of view. Above them, a Roller sat on a wire and unseen Bee-eaters prrrted overhead. A pair of Stone Curlew stood hunched and morose, ignoring the zigzagging chases of rival Calandra Larks. All of this happening at the same time, in the same place, unscripted juztapositions. This too created a heady combination of emotions in me, as the observer: a sense of sheer good fortune, touched by the vitality of spring but underlaid with poignancy and nostalgia.