Posts

Showing posts from 2020

Melting into a shadow

Image
As dusk approaches, a dark and long-legged sprite bounds into view. Its effortless long hops  make the bird seem weightless, or at least as light as a feather. As it lands it holds its slender body upright, wings droop slightly and the tail raises just above the horizontal. It peers quizzically sideways and leans forward. Changing its mind, with its tail making a hesitant quiver, it springs into another three hops. A pause again, but this time a peck and its tweezer-like bill nips up an ant from the stone paving.  
The tail is burnt sienna in colour, its upperparts duller brown with a greyish paler wash below. The combination of pale buffy spots on its back and wing-coverts and its mottled head and breast suggest a young bird. It is indeed a juvenile Nightingale, just starting to venture out on its own. It is not bothered by my presence, hopping to within two metres from me, and then only diverting away thanks to the distraction of the harvester ant trail nearby. 

It is the offspring of…

A land of extremes

Image
There is a popular misconception that the name of our region, Extremadura, is derived from the union of two Spanish words which translate as "extremely hard". It is a belief that reinforces another misconception: that the region is  tough and inhospitable. An area that people have sought to escape from rather than to arrive in. Sure, on the vast plains in central and southern Extremadura, spring peters out early by mid-May. Thistles have seeded and grasses have hauntingly become dust-yellow and brittle. By then, these landscapes have indeed become extremely hard. The view north from the village of Peñalsorda in the deep south-east of Extremadura offers a panorama with undulations recalling desert dunes, with the remote castle of Puebla de Alcocer, marking a northern limit. Over much of the plains of  La Serena the soil is so thin that slaty dog's teeth of crooked, jagged rock break the surface.

Hidden from that view, spidering through the topography to mark historic water…

Emergence

Image
It was an emotional reunion. After over six weeks away, I had missed its prime. But with huge gratitude I was there to witness the evensong of spring on the plains, as it ebbed away. Summer comes early on the steppes of Extremadura.

Lockdown was still in place, but I carried a government authorisation to work as a volunteer to monitor the classic steppe species, all confronted with a challenged future. On getting out of the car, I instinctively did the most simple thing. Standing facing east, I soaked in the very first rays from the rising sun in a landscape which seemed unlimited and eternal. Backlit feathery Retama bushes providing perches for singing Corn Buntings, emerged from the mist. Pondering forms of grazing cattle shuffled in the mist. Everywhere larks were singing.

With a weaving buoyancy a Montagu's Harrier tracked over the vast meadow beside me. A dawn and dusk hunter, searching the ground for a vulnerable nestling or oblivious rodent. This raptor is on the verge of …

Lockdown Birding Part 14

Image
Only infrequently seen at the start of the lockdown, Red-rumped Swallows are now close confidents of our confinement. They are happy to sit on the balcony railing as I stand just a few feet away by. They chortle in their friendly budgerigar manner whilst perched in the shade next to our open kitchen door.  I am not sure where this pair has chosen to nest. The old nest beside the kitchen still stands but over the last years has seen other occupants: Blue Tits and Wrens. It is now full of holes and stuffed with moss, an alien nest-lining for the Red-rumped Swallows, which gather small feathers floating airbourne.

The Stonechats must now be on their second brood, and the Barn Swallows in the toolshed are using the same nest from which their three first-brood chicks successfully fledged. There are family parties of Blue Tits working the bushes. Their ashy-smudged juveniles inquisitively picking at the bark of the twigs. The Nightingale is paired up and I suspect nesting at the edge of th…

Lockdown Birding Part 13

Image
From the balcony I can see gentle hills to the east, south and west. I stand with my back to the house, so there is no view northwards. Ignoring the wall of the house behind me and the floor I am standing on, this means that almost half of the bird habitat offered to my view is the sky.

My good friend David Lindo's message is to "Keep Looking Up". So much happens above, but when walking it is too easy to keep focused on just the ground and vegetation, During the lockdown, standing on my balcony, there is no excuse. Sightings in the sky have granted me surprise and action. The arrival of a Black Kite swinging low overhead is usually announced by the swearing of Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies. They lift from their hidden perches, sometimes two or three in unison to engage the raptor in pursuit. The Black Kite makes a subtle adjustment to its rudder through a twist of the tail, and changes course. The Iberian Magpies want the sky kite-free. The intruder seems nonchalant as…

Lockdown birding Part 12

Image
Teased by its characteristic scratchy rattle, I lean over the balcony to try to get a view of the Sardinian Warbler. Movement through the leaves in the hedge betrays its presence as it works its way upward. It rises in a short flight to land on the old rusty electricity pole beside the house. Smart and striking, with the perfect contrast of white throat and matt black head, with a vermilion orbital ring. Like the call, its song scratches its way through a gentle set of even notes, rather conversational and intimate. Until off it launches in a surprise jerky airbourne performance, climbing into the sky with its long, white-sided tail see-sawing in fluttery rhythm. At the climax, the descent starts and with a final tease, the bird cocks its tail as it sneaks back into the brambles.

The Sardinian Warbler occurs around the Mediterrean and is around here the widespread breeding Sylvia warbler. At this time of the year, I would normally be out in a favourite area of broom and lavander scru…

Lockdown Birding Part 11

Image
Everytime I have been out for my balcony birding session, and pretty much whenever I have stopped to listen, day or night, our Nightingale has been singing. He arrived a few days later than the others which are holding territories to the west and to the south of us. They are within earshot yes, but not bombarding us like this one. We can hear our Nightingale when we are inside the house, with all of the windows closed.

From the balcony I can find him perched in an acacia tree close by, or a mulberry.  He has favourite song perches, which is where I instinctively look for him. He stands still and almost upright, bill agape. He looks confident and accomplished. There is no need for show, his song speaks for itself.




The song of a Nightingale is a meditation, with deliberate pauses between each phrase to focus the attention. It reminds me of classical Persian music, which is hypnotic and often improvised, with short series of notes punctuated by silence. Like the music, the phrases are v…

Lockdown Birding Part 10

Image
Wobbling on the flimsy, pliable tip of the twig, amongst the mulberry's soft, lime-fresh leaves,  the newly-fledged Barn Swallows had certainly picked a challenging day to leave the nest. Shafts of heavy rain stung diagonally, driven by the fierce southerly wind. Just a few hours earlier, they had left the snugness of their feather-lined mud-cup nest, deep in the shelter of my toolshed. Uncertain of balance, they shuffled along the twig. They bore a rather glum expression, thanks to their huddled stance and wide, soft gape flanges. The latter reminded me of the face of a sad clown.


From time to time, a parent swallow arrived with food, settling for the briefest of moments alongside the youngster, plunging its bill into the wide gape before launching itself off the twig again. The lucky fledgling exuded a  satisfied shimmer. It was extraordinary how the parent swallows were managing to find and bring in flying insects under such atrocious weather. They worked hard, zigzagging low o…

Lockdown Birding Part 9

Image
Today's protagonist signals his presence by the best known of all bird sounds. Its repeated, disyllabic call carries far, onomatopoeic and easily imitable: "cuc..koo". I look south across to the slope of the Sierra de los Lagares and spot a distant long-tailed bird. It flies on an unwavering, horizontal trajectory, its body held likewise, propelled by strong downward stokes of determined pointed wings. The almond tree in front of the house obscures my view. As the Common Cuckoo reappears it has come much closer and is tracking  a wide arc that will take it cruising around the amphitheatre of our coombe. It calls as it does so. An announcement of possession. I have seen the female around as well, on patrol not for rivals but for opportunities. Our cuckoos close to home with have access to none of the classic Common Cuckoo hosts, as known through studies elsewhere: Reed Warblers, Dunnocks or Meadow Pipits. None of those species nest nearby. Once I watched a fledged Common …

Lockdown Birding Part 8

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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…