Countdown to a late summer dawn

Little Bustards at dawn (Martin Kelsey)

I arrive at 07.00. The eastern horizon, which gave an eggshell blue hue as I left home twenty minutes earlier, now glows apricot. This smoothly fades into the blue-black inky wash of the rest of the sky. Within seconds I hear the first bird calls, the wheeldee-eee of Crested Larks, closely followed by abrupt tics from Corn Buntings. Both are unseen, the pre-dawn gloam just sufficient to mark the open horizon here on the plains, and the proud outline of the Gredos Mountains to the north, but there is no contrast to pick out movement over the dusky barren grasslands. That is until a party of twelve Calandra Larks rise above the skyline, twanging in their bounding motion across my view. The combination of gradually improving light and my eyes tuning-in helps me to pick up the direct flight of a Corn Bunting, barely two metres above the the ground, no-nonsense and purposeful. A stocky outline on top of the chimney on an outbuilding identifies itself as a Little Owl. Its mate sits on top of a nearby fence post, a stoic blob. There are more contributions to the soundscape: a chatter of Magpies, distant Collared Doves, an Iberian Grey Shrike, along with a rooster and distant cowbells.

Apricot sky on the plains at dawn (Martin Kelsey)

At 07.13 scattered clouds to the north-west are becoming roseate-tinged. Small parties of Corn Buntings continue to pass, urgently like commuters. Half-way up a windbreak tree sits the broad-shouldered shape of a Spanish Imperial Eagle. It looks almost wholly black in this light, even with a telescope the emulsion white on "elbow" of the folded wing barely discernible. Beef cattle ponderously move across the field (what can they find to eat where even the parched sparse grass stems have crumbled?), with Spotless Starlings sauntering at their hoofs. At the top of a distant rise are farm buildings from which are delivered the yelled commands of a shepherd and his dogs bark in response. From a similar distance issue the ringing pprrrt calls of invisible Bee-eaters.

At 07.26 it is "sunrise", but the topography of the land  means I have yet to witness its appearance.  It is now the coolest time of the day and feels distinctly fresh at 19ºC (compared with the 36ºC twelve hours earlier). Whilst I have been here, four vehicles and a large truck have passed me on this rough dirt track, wheels crunching on the gravel and billowing dust. Here the farmers live in the town and drive to their work each day, greeting their dogs that have guarded the corralled sheep during the night. At my feet, there is another track, and it too has become used by agricultural workers. Harvester ants are setting out from their burrow, meeting some early risers negotiating their passage back with awned grass seeds.
Harvester Ants (Martin Kelsey)

The growling purr of Black-bellied Sandgrouse distracts me from my ponderings on the ants and I watch three flying low over the field, in fast direct flight, swerving as if on a hand-brake turn and swinging in to land. There their aerial dynamism is transformed to a trundling, shuffling gait.

At 07.30, the sound of the Bee-eaters is becoming incessant and far across the field a flock of over fifty birds emerges, spreading across the sky in long shallow glides. Three minutes later, the sun finally breaks the horizon. At that moment, I hear too the more strident calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Spanish Imperial Eagle starts barking. I turn but the eagle has already flown. It must have dropped in a long glide into the valley that is hidden from my view.

It is 07.41 and I hear a high-pitched hissing sound above me ssiissiissiissii. It heralds the wonderful sight of a group of Little Bustard, 13 in total, which pass overhead, turn and offer me a second fly past. The males still bear the nuptual black and white chevron on their necks. More Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are calling, as they make their dawn forays for water. Some I find, but others pass over heard but not seen: to locate them in the sky is a challenge with a call that has surely evolved to deceive. A Roller sits on a fence, hunched with its blue plumage brightening perceptively as the light improves.

A male Montagu's Harrier patrols the top end of the field at 08.00. A level flight, two metres above the ground, its slender tail held perfectly horizontally giving the bird a linear appearance, propelled by slow deep wingbeats which pushes it into a long, graceful glide. High above three Cattle Egrets pass over, seeking to join the starlings with the cattle.

At 08.16, three Black-winged Stilts noisily approach a pool that has shrunken so much in the summer drought, that from where I stand I see no water. Only the quacking of Mallard has betrayed its presence. Two sandgrouse fly to the west of me. Although together, they are two difference species and it is satisfying to see clearly the difference between the stocky Black-bellied and the slimmer Pin-tailed.
A Pin-tailed and a Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying together, distantly (Martin Kelsey)

I have stood here now for a hundred minutes and it is time to leave. I have seen about 420 individual birds of 25 species on terrain that has the feel of a dustbowl. All have been local breeding birds, there was no sign of any autumn migrants, although the flocking of the Bee-eaters was a presage of their imminent departure.


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