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Lockdown Birding Part 8

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From the balcony (again...) I notice a small skein of slender, dark birds appearing from the south-west, high above the ridge-top. I position myself better and watch them pass, continuing on a clean north-east trajectory. They are a dozen Great Cormorant. Their determined passage, in that direction, in formation and at that height suggests migration. Great Cormorants have been nesting at some reservoirs in Extremadura since 2002 (there was an isolated breeding record in the 1990s) and they now nest at Alcollarín Reservoir just 15 km away. They are, however, a very common winter visitor and one can find them not just on reservoirs and along large rivers in considerable numbers (sometimes in flocks of several hundred strong) but also encounter individuals on small ponds out on the plains or along smaller seasonal rivers in deep-set valleys.

They are a species I have seen a couple of times from the house over the span of over fifteen years that we have been here, but during lockdown, I …

Lockdown Birding Part 7

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The Cetti's Warbler had beaten me to it. I started my first lockdown birding session of the day at 06.25, a full 97 minutes before sunrise. I had been expecting the Little Owls to be calling, and they were. I had hoped for Scops Owl - but they were not. But as I got out of bed at 06.15, an abrupt barrage of sound assaulted me: an impatient but rich-toned blast coming from the bottom of the garden. Their Spanish name Ruiseñor bastardo can be translated as "False Nightingale", based largely due to similarities between their warm brown plumage and often skulking habits, but lacking the quality of the real Ruiseñor. However, a shared trait for nocturnal song could also account for its etymology.

It was an awe-inspiring dark sky, no moon, no clouds and no suggestion whatsoever of a glow to the east. The Milky Way stretched overhead. The zodiacal constellations Sagittarius, Scorpio and Capricorn presented themselves to the south. To the east of them, in conjuction: Jupiter, Sa…

The Sociable Enigma

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Nearly 6000 km from where it had hatched, this bird was spending its first winter on what is commonly called the steppes of Extremadura. Now if anything knows what real steppes are like, it would be this species, the Sociable Lapwing. Formerly breeding across much of the Central Asian steppes, it is now considered as Critically Endangered, with a global population (according to Wiersma et al 2020) of perhaps 16,000 individuals. It has declined greatly,  its breeding range now pretty much restricted to an area in northern Kazakhstan. Unlike the natural steppe habitat on its breeding range (although that is becoming degraded by agriculture), the open plains of Extremadura are ecologically better described as pseudosteppe. Originally oak forest, these vast tracts of land were cleared by people over many centuries for farming. The open landscape thus created has brought with it steppic species, like Calandra Larks, bustards, sandgrouse and harriers. This soft grey-brown plumaged plover, …

Lockdown Birding Part 6

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He looks as if he has been immersed in Brylcream, a right greaser, his breeding plumage shiny and jet. Not oily - it is hard to detect any colourful irridesence (apart from a bare suggestion of purple), but greasy. The feathers appear lank and matted, those on the crown and throat almost lacquered-erect and pointed. The feet are the tone of pink you will find in a roast, medium-rare. The bill is daffodill-yellow with the windswept-blue base of a male.

This Spotless Starling has become one of my favourite companions during my lockdown birding. He sometimes sings in view, perched on the telegraph post beside the house, bill wide open, prickly throat feathers spread out and entering bouts of excited wing-paddling. Usually he sings hidden from my view, on a perch behind the laurel tree in front of me. I am the only aware of his presence by his extraordinary vocalisation. His concoction bubbles away....a fizzy, gargling, sparkling, wheezing series of notes coming from deep in his syrinx, …

Lockdown Birding Part 5

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Despite a chunky structure, their stiff wings and dark plumage can make Crag Martins appear almost swift-like when seen flying at certain angles. Their name indicates a preference for rocky areas and across Extremadura they can be easily encountered all-year round beside cliffs and gorges. In winter, flocks numbering several hundred can gather on the massive rockface of Peña Falcón in the Monfragüe National Park, especially when warmed by the afternoon sun. Here they will sunbathe and hawk small insects carried on the updraughts beside the cliff. Their presence in the middle of winter is witness to sufficient numbers of aerial invertebrate prey even on the shortest days.

They are also well-known denizens of human structures, like bridges. Over the last decade or so, they have increased their presence in our local town of Trujillo. The medieval granite palaces offer the same interest to Crag Martins as natural rockfaces and each of the ancient arched gateways through the old town wall…

Lockdown Birding Part 4

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With the lockdown in Spain now confirmed to continue until 11th April (at least), the view from the balcony and periods spent in the garden become increasingly precious. This is my lifeline to spring. Favourite haunts, which I have shared with so many guests over the years, will flourish perfectly well without my visits. The Great Bustards will be lekking, Eagle Owl chicks hatching, Bumblebee Orchids flowering and Provence Hairstreaks nectaring totally oblivious of our absence. My markers, my solace, this spring will be everything that lives around our home.

I am struck by how confiding those birds which live closest to us really are. Birds seem to stop what they are doing and look at me, as I stand still on the balcony, The male Barn Swallow on the wire, with its gloriously long tail streamers, the Wren that pauses on the railing before setting off again to shatter the peace with its song, the House Sparrow that interrupts a good preen to observe me. These nearest neighbours are beco…

Lockdown Birding Part 3

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The Hoopoe's "song" oop-oop-oop is delivered perched, with the bird appearing to go through considerable effort in producing it. Standing on our balcony for lockdown birding has given me the chance to watch our garden birds stepping up into the rhythm of spring. A Blackbird appears relaxed as it sings: barely moving its body and its bill simply ajar, the head still as song flows warm and comforting into the soundsphere. Hoopoes undergo a contortion. They arch their heads downward, the neck becomes swollen and the bill is directed the feet. They appear hunched up and troubled, grave and serious. With its oop you can sense strain.


Yet, Hoopoes are busy ooping away, because spring demands it. We must be on the border of two Hoopoe territories because whilst I was watching this singing bird, I sensed a split second of unease, its tail fanned and at the moment a rival flew in and dislodged the singer. Off the two bounded, with their wide fanned wings, flashing black and white…

A rock flower's blessing

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Few birds conjure such expectation or are so magically engaging to watch as Wallcreepers. I suspect all birders fortunate enough to have seen Wallcreepers remember their first encounter, and most of their subsequent ones too. Mine was on 6th July 1981 from the Marienbrücke across the Pöllat Gorge in Bavaria. Whilst sightseers stood admiring the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle from the bridge, just as its creator King Ludwig II had done, I looked down into the gorge itself. Quietly I absorbed the profound satisfaction of watching my very first Wallcreeper. I wrote that evening "a Wallcreeper was sighted - a fine crimson-winged bird feeding on a moth and also preening. Whenever it moved and climbed over the rocks it did so in a fluttering fashion and its flight was butterfly-like". Closing my eyes, I can picture it now.

Since then, I have received blessings from the Rock Flower (a Chinese name for the species)* in other equally memorable settings: limestone gorges in south F…

Lockdown Birding Part 2

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We are now on Day 4 of the lockdown in Spain and I am on my third day of systematic birding from the balcony. The weather has been rather cold and very windy, but with sunshine, so our solar panels have been busy and thus we can hopefully keep our energy bills down during this period! Three things have struck me about this birding experience so far.

My fixed routine of three watches a day (plus incidental observations I make whilst doing other things) is helping greatly to keep my spirits up and programmes the day wonderfully. It also gives me the chance to watch and enjoy common species that are inexcusably undervalued. Yesterday's Blackbird quietly singing in the bare acacia tree in our garden touched me not just for the simple beauty of its song, but also its plumage - the fine yellow ring of bare skin orbiting the eye, the vivid but gentle orangeness of the bill. And I am logging the bird activity in the garden in a way I have not done before: several species are carrying nes…

Lockdown Birding Part 1

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To the north-east lies the small town of Madroñera, embraced by gentle olive-clad hills. These rise, as I look east, to the summit of Pedro Gómez, over a thousand metres above sea-level and five and half kilometres from where I stand. There olives are replaced by holm oak dehesa, with  deciduous Pyrenean oak near the summit. Looking southwards and south-west, the hills are smaller, rounded and called the Sierra de los Lagares. Our village of Pago de San Clemente, rests at the base of their old olive-grove covered slopes. Red-tiled rooftops and small gardens are in view.

To the south-west, below the continuing shoulder of the Sierra are pastures and an arable field. Closer at hand are our own olive grove and garden with its lawn and scattered trees. Half of the overall panorama is the sky.

I stand on the balcony and this is my view. This will be my birding world for at least the next two weeks, and probably longer, as households across Spain are in lockdown as part of the declared sta…