Posts

Showing posts from 2020

A young master at work

Image
This is flycatcher month in Extremadura. Fresh from broad-leaved forests in central and northern Europe, Pied Flycatchers are the most abundant. With their urgent, metallic alarm call, they are easy to locate and on my regular walk along the lane from the house I can expect to find five or six in the space of twenty minutes. At this time of year, all are in plumages similar to that of spring females, a satin brown above with whitish underparts and a bold white flash on the wing. The males are no longer the striking "pied" black and white excitements of spring. My morning's tally in September will exceed the total number of spring passage birds that I will see in a normal year here. There are several reasons for this. The numbers of migrant birds will always be greater in the autumn than the spring because the population is larger - there being adults and young birds on the move. In spring, one sees only those birds that have survived the migration route there and back. A…

Wandering minstrels

Image
Nature tells me that by 15th August autumn has arrived in Extremadura. There is something about the freshness at dawn, after nights that have now lengthened to almost ten and half hours long. The turquoise midday sky is now bereft of Black Kites, most of which are already in Africa. And the arrival of a tiny bird from northern Europe marks the change of season with certainty. This morning I watched a loose group of four of these lemon-soft sprites foraging along our driveway. In tireless fashion they popped in and out of view amongst the narrow leaves of an almond tree. It was an exploration with a search-image of miniscule arthropods, to be found on the underside of the leaves. These were reachable by peering from a perch, or by making a short, fluttering hover just bill-distance from the foliage. Exhausting possibilities there, they flew across the drive onto a patch of lawn and then onto the gravel. So engrossed were they in their morning foray for food, that they ignored me comple…

A swift appointment

Image
Standing in Trujillo's main square one evening this week, loud screams distracted my quiet contemplation of the socially-distanced groups dining at the pavement cafes. The disturbance came from above. At the rooftops, small bats rolled out from their roosts and fluttered over the tiles. But the sound came from higher still. Only then, squinting hard into the disappearing light of when evening turns to night, did I make out the culprits. A swirling gang, wheeling and dealing swifts, growing in density as if by vortex, others were sucked in. Perhaps there were sixty or so, it was hard to tell. I glanced back to cafes and realised that no one else was peering, stiff-necked, upwards. I was the only one mesmerised by these aerial barracudas. Perhaps no one else had even heard the screams.

Gravity sucked these long, stiff-winged birds downwards, plunging towards the cavities and cracks in the masonry in the 16th century palaces cornering the square. There they would roost. Some of the sw…

Secret pools

Image
Just over forty kilometres from home, the place could have been on another continent. Standing in the shade of a grove of alders and strawberry trees, amongst water-smoothed boulders, a deep dappled pool fed by a gushing torrent, I felt bourne away to a sub-tropical Andean mountain stream. The water in the pool was so clear that I watched shoals of small fish twisting in silver flashes. We were tucked into a gorge, a strip of lush green squeezed between the thrusts of ancient quartzite. The crests of the cliffs above us were the eroded splinters of these vertical planes, extraordinarily held in place by gravity. The high-summer blue sky was constantly criss-crossed by Griffon Vultures, along with flutters of Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows. A group of four nimble White-rumped Swifts chased each other in front of the rock face. 

The stream entering the gorge had long ago dried-up. The gushing cool water now at our feet seemed close to miraculous. There was no visible source. Neithe…

A moving feast

Image
The rice fields are at their most uniform. A vast spread of small rectangular plots, all with lush lime-green growing crop, are fed by a hierarchy of canals, channels, ditches and plastic-lined breaks in the bunds. The water is gravity-carried from the Sierra Brava Reservoir. Bare-earth bunds retain the paddies, their upper part baked by the 40º heat, the lower half of the bank darkened by the osmotic rise of moisture. These bunds are alleyways for the birds hanging out here: freshly arrived Northern Lapwings, gangs of Tree Sparrows, rows of White Storks and Cattle Egrets and the clay-coloured Collared Pratincoles. These anomalous waders shuffle on their short legs, but maintain an elegance thanks to their long wings neatly folded over their forked tails. When at rest at a distance they appear rather dowdy, but when closer, my attention is carried to their heads and necks: their short, curved bill, reddish at its base, a creamy throat neatly defined in black.
In the thumping heat, the …

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 …