High altitude visitor

Dotterel (Martin Kelsey)

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 field, which still holds water and has also attracted several Shoveler and Mallard, a couple of Snipe, a Black-winged Stilt and a Black-headed Gull.
Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Martin Kelsey)

We find a party of Little Bustards, over a dozen birds. They are flocking now for the winter, easily spotted in flight with their rapid wingbeats flashing white, but almost invisible on the ground as they stand magnificently camouflaged, seeking vegetation as tall as they are.

Further on, driving slowly in search of more bustards, I notice a bird standing motionless not far from the road. It is clearly a plover, and as soon as I stop to take a proper look, I realise that it is a juvenile Dotterel. It takes a few paces, stops and then takes a few paces again. Its age is betrayed by the broad pale fringes to the scapular feathers and tertials, coming together in an attractive lattice work patterning. This bird would most likely have hatched and developed as a chick on some bare mountain plateau, above the tree-line, perhaps in Norway, and was now making its first journey southwards. Most winter in North Africa, but a few stay in southern Spain. I pondered on the extraordinary diversity of landscapes and climates that this young bird, as well as the similarly aged Northern Wheatears and Whinchats that were perched on the fence beside the field, would encounter on their first few months of life. But there were some similiarities too with its natal habitat. These plains in Extremadura are also of relatively high altitude (averaging perhaps 500 metres above sea-level) and the Dotterel also chose the field with the sparsest vegetation, where rock broke through the thin poor soil, a desolate expanse which perhaps had evoked a memory of some distant barren northern mountain.


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