Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Autumn comes in waves

Autumnn  Buttercup (Martin Kelsey)

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-November, skeins of Scandanavian Greylag Geese, precise arrow-shaped forms, dark against the dullen sky, deep in garrulous conversation, are arriving to feed along with the cranes on the stubble. Their sojourn is shorter, not even the length of winter. Before the end of January, the geese will start again their journey north.

Greylag Geese (Martin Kelsey)

Some birds make flying visits. I sat in the vehicle, with Nigel and Muriel, sheltering from the rain as we ate our sandwiches. I had parked in such a way that from where we sat we could see both a shallow bay of the Alcollarín Reservoir, and the small subsidiary pool where a crowd of Great Cormorants splashed in an exurberance of foraging, plunging from the surface and popping-up again with silvery fish clamped in their mandibles. Casually I raised my binoculars in one hand, lunch in the other, and peered through the rain-splattered window to the main bay. There were a few Lapwing and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. Then entering the field of vew was an energetic pale wader. looking somewhat bigger than the plovers.  It struck me as odd, but the combination of distance and visibility meant that I could not immediately identify it. Putting my sandwich down, I stepped out into the rain and set up the telescope. Despite being nearly 400 metres away and with the heavy rain, its identify was immediately obvious. Its rather frenzied, jerky foraging meant phalarope and its plain grey mantle pointed to Grey Pharalope (or Red Phalarope as it is also known). 

I wanted to get some photos of this: a rarity in Extremadura and only the second that I had seen in the region, but, confident that the bird would stay for a while, I got back into the car, gave Nigel and Muriel the news and suggested that we finish lunch whilst waiting for the rain to ease. This it did. Although  phalaropes are generally extremely confiding, we approached the area where the bird was feeding from behind the cover of a bush-lined ditch and stayed a good distance from it, allowing it to get gradually a bit closer to us, rather than us moving nearer. We were able to watch the bird at length. It was busily foraging the whole time, picking midges off the water surface, spinning round as it swam, its fine bill daintily working away. Sometimes, it entered shallower water, wading or came up onto the shore, where it sauntered on its surprisingly short legs

Grey Phalarope (Nigel Sprowell)

Its clean appearance with its smooth grey back and white underparts indicated an adult bird. Up in the Arctic tundra, from whence it hailed, it would have looked very different: brick-red underparts with a white facial mask and dark crown. It migrates to spend a pelagic winter in the Atlantic. Most probably the weather had brought this individual well inland (Alcollarín lies just under 300 km from the Portuguese coast), another consequence of this wet and windy season.

We withdrew and then watched it for longer from the car park. It was foraging furiously and was oblivious to the arrival beside it of a Black Stork: an extraordinary juxtaoposition of birds in the same field of view.

It was seen later that day, but other observers checking the site the following day and subsequently, failed to relocate the bird. How long it had been there before we found it can only be a guess, but I suspect that its stay would have been very brief. I hope, as I write, that this special bird is now bobbing away where it should be, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Living autumn

River Magasca early November (Martin Kelsey)

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 are enjoying an autumn this year which is oozing with life.

Serotine Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

The bloom of the autumn bulbs has been spectacular, perhaps none more so than the vast swards of Serotine Narcissus, which is places give the appearance of a dusting of snow. Each individual specimen seems feeble and vulnerable. The star-like flower is held on a flimsy stem, bereft of leaves (which had grown in the spring and then withered in the summer). The merest caress of a breeze sends the structure nodding and yet collectively they can change the colour of an entire field. Intermingled with the narcissi are Autumn Squills and Autumn Snowflakes. This whole sensation is best experienced at ground-level, where these autumn gems, amongst those ghosts of summer: the dry flowerheads of the thistles, become a thousand wands of life.

Serotine Narcissus, Autumn Squill and thistle heads (Martin Kelsey)

A break in the clouds and sunshine sets off the year-end song of Woodlark, which mixes with the heraldic bugling of the incoming Common Cranes. These winter visitors, perhaps the most symbolic for us, have poured into Extremadura over the last two weeks. Thousands are now gathered on the newly harvested fields of rice and maize. In contrast the remaining birds of passage which are heading to destinations in the Sahel are quietly withdrawing from the scene. The flycatchers and Whinchats have now all gone and there are barely any Northern Wheatears still around. Their places now taken with the community of winter birds: Robins, Song Thrushes, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. There is no other season like winter here for the sheer abundance of birds in almost every landscape.

With the scrutiny of careful sight and sound, oddities can be found. A party of Common Crossbills that we found feeding in pines above a favourite picnic spot of mine was the first record in the Monfragüe National Park since 2012.
"Back of Camera" shot of Yellow-browed Warbler in Monfragüe (John Hawkins)

Two Yellow-browed Warblers have been found this autumn so far, one also in the Monfragüe National Park at the beginning of October and one at the end of the month in a hotel garden just a kilometre from where we live. For the latter I am grateful to its finder, Simon Tonkin, who quickly got a message to me about his lucky sighting. A few hours later as I watched this hyper-active little warbler, of Siberian origin (and which should have been by now on its way to south-east Asia), I marvelled at the statistical (im)probability of these sightings. There are over 15,000 square kilometres of dehesa woodland in Extremadura. Each of these rare tiny warblers were found in places where birders are habitually present. They were seen on just single days, and never again. How many more pass through the vastness of the woodlands of Extremadura wholly undetected in areas where birders never set foot?