Emergence

A first dawn back on the plains of Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

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 extinction here and this individual was rarer still: a stunning melanistic form with plumage all sooty-black, save for grey, paler silven tones on the underside of its outer wing.

A Turtle Dove (Martin Kelsey)

A Turtle Dove rested on the top of a single tree, a pause on its onward journey to rest and preen, whilst on the other side of the same tree, an Iberian Grey Shrike surveyed its territory, the gentle rosy flush on its breast matching that on the Turtle Dove, captured from the early sun.

Iberian Grey Shrike (Martin Kelsey)

On an area of thinner soil, on the eastern slope of an undulation three huge male Great Bustards were performing their "rueda", the Spanish term denoting their lekking dance, when having transformed their massive bodies into white pyramids, their throat pouched inflated to resemble orange medicine balls and their nuptual moustache bristles vertically erect like tufts, they shuffle sumo-wrestler like, in a slow rotation. They pick an area of short pasture, uncluttered by wild flowers, to enhance their visibility. My friend Jesús Porras told me that once from the castle of Trujillo, using a telescope, he could make out the white dots of dancing Great Bustards from a distance of eight kilometres.

Male Little Bustard (Martin Kelsey)

One of the key subjects of the conservation survey is the Little Bustard, a severely endangered species. In early May they are still in their peak of their courtship. Vegetation is now at its tallest, the flowering heads of grasses starting to blond, stocky thistles in bloom and swathes of daisies. To be visible, the advertising male looks for slightly higher more open ground, perhaps next to a rocky outcrop, on an ants' mound or even along a sheep track. Here he stands and stamps, the neck feathers erect like a cobra's hood, alarmingly striped white on black. Viewing the bird from a safe distance through my telescope, I see the neck jerk back and bill open. A moment later my ears receive the short, rasping sound that the bird had produced. The lapse caused by the difference between the velocities of light and sound - physics and biology interwoven.

Perez-Chiscano's Tongue Orchid (Martin Kelsey)

It has been the wettest spring for over a decade and the floral display was stunning. Jesús had told me of a great find he had made just a few days earlier and on my first day on the plains I completed my survey with a special treat. Nestled in the verge of an ancient drovers' trail, close to some Retama bushes, were over a dozen creamy flower spikes, with delicate dark veins. Named after its discoverer, Perez-Chiscano's Tongue Orchid is known only from Extremadura and a few recently found colonies across the border in Portugal. These were growing just 12 kilometres from home, far closer to base than any that I had previously seen. The damp spring had created ideal conditions for this orchid and my emergence onto the plains had, by serendipity, been timed to see them to perfection.

Comments

Alistair Hamilton said…
Good to see you back to something like normal. In April 2019 we visited Extremedura for the 4th or 5th time, but that was by far the best yet. We had planned to visit again this year, but that now seems unlikely. Your lockdown blogs were something of a tonic though, at times, made us a little envious! Keep up the good work - and stay safe.

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