Secret pools

The secret pools (Martin Kelsey)

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. 

A constant flow (Martin Kelsey

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. Neither was there a path through this hidden, magical gorge. We scambled over boulders, squeezing between them to drop to a patch of shingle and then negotiated the twists of tree roots and more rocks. The view of our way ahead was sometimes visible as a series of sunlit small pools, with small waterfalls at each stepped descent, under an arch of green. A yelping call broke the silence and in front a dark form stood close to the water. Checking with our binoculars, we could see that it was a young Golden Eagle, which had come down to drink or bathe. It flew off, the base of its tail flashing white through the dappled shade.

Our pursuit was dragonflies and their presence strengthened this tropical sensation. Two species of spreadwings clustered in groups, hanging from exposed rootlets in the shade of boles of twisted trees. Blue Keeled Skimmers and red Broad Scarlets zigzagged to territorial chases. Away from the water and spending most of their time perched on withered flower stems were darters. Most were Common Darters with their florid mosaic pattern on the side of the thorax, but we were pleased to find two Southern Darters, a highly localised species in Extremadura and this site was well away from known areas. 

Southern Darter (Martin Kelsey)

A Western Spectre poked around under the fronds of waterside vegetation, before zooming up the bank and finding a rocky overhang where it rested, suspended vertically, in deep and obscure shade. Small Pincertails rested too, but in sunny spots.

Small Pincertail (Martin Kelsey)

Stopping where we planned to finish the exploration, I looked a little further downstream. Through my binoculars, a red dragonfly caught my attention, somehow looking even brighter than the Scarlet Darters. I scrambled onward to where I could get a closer look. In almost disbelief, I realised what it was. Below me was an Orange-winged Dropwing. Only recorded for the first time in Spain in 2007 in Malaga, this African species has established itself across parts of southern Spain. I had been looking for it for several years in Extremadura, where it had been found in just a handful of places in the last few years. It has a reputation of favouring small ponds and fountains in town parks and even swimming pools. This secret setting could not have been further removed from that, with its pebbly pools filled with pure crystalline water.

Orange-winged Dropwing (Martin Kelsey)

The heat of the day drove the dragonfly to obelisk. Holding its abdomen vertically and wings splayed, as it perched at the sharp tip of a rush, the posture is thought to help the insect control its temperature. The broad saffron-orange bases to both pairs of wings is also supposed to manage the heat, as well as making the species so distinctive. I could see that many of the veins across the wing were also pigmented red, whilst the pterostigma, the coloured cell at the outer edge of the wing, was rather small and dark. 
Obelisking Orange-winged Dropwing (Martin Kelsey)

The heat causing this obelisking behaviour also drove us to take a celebratory swim in the deep shady pool just upstream. The water temperature was perfect and we could float on our backs looking up to  the crags through the canopy and the vultures gliding above. The sensation was totally sublime. With trepidation we gathered our belongings and made the climb back to the top of gorge. As soon as we left the narrow confines of shade, the water disappeared and we trudged across the bleached dry watercourse in a crispy-brown floored dehesa woodland, battered by a 40º C heat. It felt as if we had crossed from the verdant Andean subtropics to the Outback in the space of  a minute.



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