Big Year 2022 Part 2: Windows of Opportunity - April to October


Part 2: Windows of Opportunity - April to October

Black-winged Kite (Martin Kelsey) : first seen 28th January

April is a crucial month in any Big Year attempt in Extremadura. This is the peak month for the northward passage of waders. Waders such as Grey Plover, Sanderling, Red Knot, Turnstone, Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit are very scarce. Although most migrate along the coast, some follow an overland route across Spain. If they meet adverse conditions, they might pause and stop off for a very brief rest. The rice fields in the centre of Extremadura and the shores of reservoirs provide places for them to stop and feed. Whilst there is still some migration of Arctic-bound waders in early May (especially Common Ringed Plovers) and some of these species can also make an appearance in early autumn, April offers us the best opportunity. It is a narrow window of opportunity. April is also a time when I am out every day with clients, visiting the full spectrum of habitats, the rice fields included. During the month, we found Temminck’s Stint, Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpiper and most remarkably a record-breaking flock of Bar-tailed Godwits. This is considered a rarity in Extremadura and almost always just single birds are seen. 

Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover (Martin Kelsey): Bar-tailed Godwit first seen 22nd April, Grey Plover 25th February

I got a message on 22nd April from my old friend John Muddeman that he had just found “112 BAR-TAILED GODWIT at Palazuelo”. That was one of those drop everything and go moments. A number like that in Extremadura was simply incredible. On my way there I would go past Alcollarín Reservoir (where I had seen Bar-tailed Godwits a couple of times in previous years), so I decided to make a stop there to check. Huddled at the water’s edge in rather inclement weather were a group of 36 birds, all in splendid breeding plumage. Amazing. I headed onto Palazuelo, where the field that John described turned was the same where I had seen Whimbrel a few days earlier. There were 28 Bar-tailed Godwits remaining, along with three Grey Plover, which hadn’t been present when John was there.   

The Godwits were one of the highlights of the month, which also offered a Red-throated Pipit in a rice field adjacent to one in which I had found my first one for Extremadura just a year earlier. Passage Tree Pipits, Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats are always treats in the spring, the latter two being quite abundant in the autumn. The last new bird of the month was a singing Turtle Dove, whilst I was doing some fieldwork. Sadly, like everywhere else, this species is getting much scarcer.

Honey Buzzard (Martin Kelsey): first seen 7th May

A Black Tern at Alcollarín Reservoir was my first new bird in May, making the total 233, a figure I had never reached before June. Alcollarín is a great place for marsh terns and three days later I saw a Whiskered Tern there. There is a final wave of spring migrants in May and within the first two weeks I had seen, thanks to excursions for guests, White-rumped Swift, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (which were worrying late in arriving), Honey Buzzard, Tawny Pipit and Western Olivaceous Warbler. On such an outing, to the edge of the Gredos Mountains, Common Rock Thrush, Ortolan Bunting and Common Whitethroat were added. A work meeting in Badajoz city gave me the chance for a walk beside the Guadiana River, seeing amongst other things, a long-staying African Sacred Ibis, probably from the feral population in France.

Yellow-banded Skipper (Martin Kelsey

My focus in June was on insects, specifically butterflies and dragonflies on request of the guests that I was guiding for that month. This worked very well for the bird-listing too. One of the most interesting areas for butterflies at that time of the year is the area around La Garganta and I made several visits there, finding on all visits the much-sought after Yellow-banded Skipper, one of Spain’s rarest butterflies. Here too are a few pairs of Red-backed Shrike, which just cross the boundary into northern Extremadura. European Nightjars occur too (Red-necked Nightjars are much more widespread, and I hear them from the house from late April). A year earlier, from the terrace bar of the hotel that I use nearby, I had watched a Hobby being mobbed by swallows. I sat out on that terrace for several evenings hoping for a repeat, finally being rewarded so on 26th June.

Red-necked Nightjar (Martin Kelsey): first seen 26th April

There then followed a hiatus. July is a classic “dog days of summer” month. In Extremadura we were hit by a record-breaking heatwave, the temperature on more than half of the days that month in Mérida rose above 40ºC. Birding was only really possible at first light and at dusk. Anyway, we had other plans. The new Global Birdfair was taking place in England in the middle of the month, preceded by our son’s university graduation and followed by a holiday to see my sister who was living in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. We left for the UK on 11th July for the rest of the month. Now July is also when there can be surprises, and typically the birding highlight took place when we were away, with the discovery of a group of eight Sandwich Terns at a reservoir near Cáceres. This was only the third record for Extremadura and, as it turned out, the first which was “twitchable” as they remained there for two days.

Back in Extremadura at the beginning of August and my total stood at 248. I was nine short of breaking my own record and eleven shy of breaking the all-time record. I had five months ahead of me. I had seen almost all of the breeding species (only the elusive Goshawk had escaped me), so my focus now would have to be on finding species I had missed during the winter and passage migrants. I would also need the determination and good fortune to find some rare surprises as well. To get myself organized I made a list of species that I reckoned I had a chance of finding still: there were 25 possibilities. It was now, more than ever, down to searching for particular birds.

August is the best month to find Audouin’s Gulls in Extremadura. This Mediterranean species breeds on the coast, but there is a dispersal of juvenile birds in late summer, some of which find themselves inland. I have even seen small groups of juvenile Audouin’s Gulls at places like Alcollarin, where during month I made frequent but fruitless visits. I eventually found a juvenile bird not there, but at a small dam at the edge of the rice fields, whilst checking it on the “off-chance” along with my friend David Lindo. It was he who found a day later a Pectoral Sandpiper close to Cáceres. It is a bird I had seen before in Extremadura and I hesitated about breaking my rule to go to see it, but given who had found it, I was happy to have a go. On 12th August the news was that it had moved to another site, so I headed there immediately and managed some lovely views of this North American wader. It was my 250th bird of the year. Remarkably I had never before reached that milestone before December, so things were starting to look very good indeed.

Montagu's Harrier (Martin Kelsey): first seen 27th March

A bird that I had long wanted to see in Extremadura is the Aquatic Warbler. The “reed warblers” Acrocephalus are a group of species that I studied (a long time ago) and of the species that breed in Europe, Aquatic Warblers are the rarest. The first time I saw them were on their breeding grounds in Belarus, singing at dusk beside displaying Great Snipe. Feather isotope analysis identified only quite recently their wintering grounds in West Africa and to get there they migrate west and then south, passing through the Iberian Peninsula in August. On passage they stop in marshy ground, like rice fields. In such habitat they are extremely secretive, silent and almost all records are of birds that are caught in mist nets. Some ringing effort over the years had yielded a handful of records in the north of Extremadura. A few years ago, I spent one morning with my friend Hugo Sánchez who was ringing migrants, but although he had caught one a few days earlier, we were unlucky that day.

Common Quail (Martin Kelsey): first seen 2 March 

For the past three years I have devoted time early morning in August, sitting patiently beside what looked like good spots. In 2022, the drought over the previous winter meant that almost all rice cultivation in the centre of Extremadura had stopped, because there was no water available to flood the fields. All the areas that I had visited in previous years were simply parched, barren fields. Eventually I found an area where at least a third of the fields had a rice crop. This was where I had to focus. By great coincidence it was also the area where I had found a Red-throated Pipit the year before. These early morning visits were a joy. The area was full of Quail, and as I sat in the car, on several occasions I watched Quail come out onto the track. Montagu’s Harriers cruised over the fields and groups of Glossy Ibis foraged. On my fifth morning, I was watching a ditch, full of reed mace, where passage Sedge Warblers were in good numbers. Suddenly a bird appeared in the open was strikingly slimmer and more yellow. Through the binoculars a check of its head showed a bold central crown stripe, and its flanks were strongly streaked. It was my first Aquatic Warbler in Extremadura! It disappeared. To the left an Aquatic Warbler reappeared and this time I noticed that it was carrying a  ring (where had it been ringed: Belarus, Poland, Spain?). It was only when I checked my photos that I realized that the first bird was unringed. There were two Aquatic Warblers. I was bowled over.

Aquatic Warbler (Martin Kelsey): seen 30 August

September offers a second chance for passage waders, so I added Sanderling whilst taking some clients to a reservoir near Cáceres. At Alcollarín I found a Ruddy Shelduck with the large flock of Egyptian Geese congregate there in late summer. It is assumed that Ruddy Shelducks which are recorded a few times each year in Extremadura hail from feral populations in Europe, but the possibility must exist that they may also be birds originating from natural populations in North Africa.

Dotterel are a scarce, probably overlooked, passage migrant through Extremadura, mainly in the autumn and sometimes overwintering groups are found. October is the best month for finding them, when these gentle birds of the mountains in northern Europe pause at often traditional sites. This October I saw Dotterel in three different places, two of which I had seen them at in previous years and the other was a chance encounter whilst I was surveying birds in southern Badajoz province.

Eurasian Dotterel (Martin Kelsey): first seen 6 October

(see Part 3 for late autumn and winter)


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