Showing posts from April, 2020

Lockdown birding Part 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, …