|Early December in the hills (Martin Kelsey)|
Eight months earlier, under the softness of a fresh canopy of Sweet Chestnut leaves, the sight of a vast colony of creamy Barton's Orchids filled me with joy. Now, only a single wizened grey spike, bearing the husks of the seed capsules remains in view. It is exposed on a mossy bank, with the rest of the colony now hidden under the deep blanket of coppery leaves covering the ground in this grove. The trees stand dormant and a winter's silence now clothes this hilltop. Until a Jay screeches and somewhere through the trees a Roe Deer barks, making me jump.
|A frosty trail (Martin Kelsey)|
There is still colour in many of the Sweet Chestnuts and Pyrenean Oaks. I am at about a 1000 metres above sea-level and the temperature is hugging freezing point (but in the frost pockets lower down it was down to minus 4º C) and autumn just about perseveres here, although there is a distinct wintery feel to the birds. Walking along a ride, where the shade has kept the ground frozen, there is a constant flurry of Redwings, erupting from the tree-tops with thin but penetrating wisping calls. I watch one through the foliage: their facial expression is stern thanks to the bold patterning of whitish supercilium and dark brown streaks. A male Brambling sits high in a sapling beside the path, preening its peach-orange breast. Siskins give their brittle chattering from the canopy above.
|The magnificent view across to the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)|
From a viewpoint I can look across to the Villuercas Mountains to my east. Across this undulating panorama I see nothing but unbroken forest: there is no sign of human presence, save the radio masks on the Villuercas peak itself. This walk is the place where I watched busy, territoral Two-tailed Pashas in September, a magnificent butterfly whose larval food plant is the Strawberry Tree. Only today am I aware of just how many of these shrubby trees abound here. They are laden with their eponymous-looking fruits and the hillside in front of me has broad bands of these, their fruits in glorious contrast to the shining green leaves, and beloved by Blackbirds.
|Strawberry Tree (Martin Kelsey)|
Long periods of silence are broken by sounds as birds move in their search for food. The smallest birds are joining up into mixed foraging groups. This is a typical strategy for small woodland birds in winter, helping to keep a collective, lookout for predators and ensuring a more efficient search for food. It recalls my days in tropical forests, where such behaviour is a year-round phenomenon resulting in the feast and famine experience for the birdwatcher - long periods of calm followed by a frenzy of activity as birds pass-by and it can become frustratingly impossible to keep up with them all. Here, in the winter mixed woodlands of Extremadura, the array of species is more limited but it still brings excitement. Lomng-tailed Tits seem to be the key species, certainly numerically making up the strength of the flock. There are Crested Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits. A Short-toed Treecreepers gamely tries to keep up - it seems as if it is torn between searching the tree truck on its careful upwards spiral or racing to catch-up with the others. A smaller bird hovers at the tips of the twigs. It settles and moves with a darting speed that makes it difficult to get a clear view of it. At last a view of its head, vividly patterned black and white on the side of the head and a crown that bears a flame of red and yellow, rising as if in a hearth: a perfect image of that matches its name: Firecrest.
|Firecrest (Martin Kelsey)|
From the end of the track the view opens: pastures and the burnished bronze of autumnal bushes. In the far horizon the sun catches the snow in the upper slopes of the Gredos Mountains. There winter has finally taken hold.
|View north to the Gredos Mountains (Martin Kelsey)|