Big Year 2022: Part One The rising curve - January to March

Spanish Sparrow (Martin Kelsey): first seen 8th January.

The rising curve - January to March 

I had never intended to do a “Big Year” in Extremadura in 2022, to see how many of birds I could record in twelve months. We spent the New Year in Galicia, the wonderfully wet and windy north-west of Spain, and it wasn’t until January 6th that I saw my first birds of the year in Extremadura. I was planning to be quite relaxed about my birding. But by February, it was clear that, thanks to strokes of luck and a lot of time spent in the field, I was doing rather well in the accumulative total of birds seen. So, I decided then that I would set myself two targets: to break my own record of 256 species and to see more species than anyone else in 2022. 

However, I would also set some rules. First, only to twitch (i.e to make a special journey to see a specific individual bird found by someone else) if I had never seen that species before in Extremadura, all other birds would be “self-found”. I would also try to maximise my effort locally (with say a 35km radius of home). This was to reduce my carbon footprint (and frankly to keep costs as low as possible). Finally, work would have to come first (this would be easy to keep as most of my work is either showing other people birds or carrying out bird surveys in the field). 

I would use eBird, which is the world’s largest citizen science project to record all the birds I saw in Extremadura. I have been using eBird for many years, and so do all the active birders in the region. Thus, it would be very easy for me to see how other people would be faring on their birding doing the year. The information uploaded is in the public domain, meaning the details of all my finds would be shared. This is a rather beautiful thing about birding. Although a Big Year may be construed of a race between competitors, in truth information, guidance and advice is shared freely across the community, nothing is withheld (apart from rare occasions where the species or site concerned may be very sensitive to disturbance). Reciprocal altruism is the key. 

A Big Year follows a typical pattern with a surge in the first two months as birding takes in as many of the resident species and winter visitors as possible. There will be a second opportunity for wintering birds at the end of the year, but no winter is the same. In Extremadura, there can be “good” and “poor” winters for a range of species. Certain species of duck or wintering passerine can vary significantly in number depending on feeding or weather conditions further north, and winter storms can bring in unusual waders or gulls. 

Firecrest (Martin Kelsey): first seen 8th January.


My Extremadura year list started on 6th January with birds close to the garden, including one of my favourites, Hawfinch. It is a bird that I can see almost daily at home, so it was very fitting that it appeared on my first day. A Barn Owl calling on 7th was a good bird – this is a species that can be hard in Extremadura, fortunately they are back in the village after a gap of a few years. Later that day I made a visit to show my sister the spectacular rocky outcrops beside the village of Cabañas del Castillo, which rise at the western edge of the Villuercas Mountains, affording an expansive view across a rolling dehesa landscape. Here Eurasian Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrush and Cirl Bunting were amongst new species seen, as well as a distant Alpine Accentor. This is winter visitor to favoured traditional sites, and always a joy to see. First thing the following day a walk around the village added birds like White Stork, Woodlark, Firecrest and Redwing. I then set off to the Prosperina Reservoir near Mérida. A year earlier, a wintering Great Northern Diver had been found, a species I had never seen in Extremadura. Because of COVID travel restrictions, movement outside one’s municipal boundaries was not allowed. Now a Great Northern Diver was present again, and no restrictions were in place. It was an unexpected second chance and not to be turned down! At the site, we combed the view across the water. It took a nail-biting few minutes before the bird was found, close to the distant shore and very actively feeding – spending more time underwater than above. 

I took my sister back to the airport in Madrid on 10th January and on my way back stopped at the Arrocampo Reservoir. This is an outstanding site, a shallow reed-fringed reservoir and the best area in the province of Cáceres for herons and egrets. Sure enough species like Western Swamphen and Spoonbill were added, but best of all Bearded Tit. Arrocampo is the only place where this species occurs in Extremadura, but the numbers are very small and can be very hard to find. Two days later I made my first visit of the year to my local patch, the Alcollarín Reservoir which added birds like Black Stork, Peregrine and Black-necked Grebe to the list. It is a site which would feature significantly during the year. 

Jack Snipe (Martin Kelsey): first seen 15th January


Mid-January is the time for the international waterbird surveys and I set out with great anticipation to census birds in a variety of sites, spanning muddy rice stubble fields to Alcollarín. I have always enjoyed census work and these habitats in January also provide great potential for finding interesting birds. At first light on 14th January, I was watching an Eagle Owl at roost and just minutes later finding Greater White-fronted Geese (a local rarity) amongst the hundreds of wintering Greylag Geese that hail from Scandinavia. Black-winged Stilts and a Hen Harrier followed suite. At the Alcollarín Reservoir, a Jack Snipe was another useful bird to find for the list. They can be hit or miss, but this winter it was the first of several that I found. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was the first one I had ever found at Alcollarín. There was also the year’s first Barn Swallow. 
 
Hen Harrier (Martin Kelsey): first seen 14th January


The rice stubble fields near Palazuelo were very rewarding for waders, including Avocet, Curlew and Kentish Plover. As I returned home in the evening of the 16th, a Long-eared Owl was calling. Overall, the census work had yielded an amazing total of 25, 332 individual birds, it had also helped in bringing my year list to 121 species in just ten days. 

I checked Alcollarín Reservoir again on 20th January, adding a drake Garganey and a Ferruginous Duck. Winter bird surveys on the hill beside the village added Short-toed Treecreeper and Siskin, whilst on my first visit to the Monfragüe National Park on 26th January Spanish and Bonelli’s Eagles were added. My last new bird in January was a Golden Eagle at the eastern end of the park. My total was 141. 
Great Bustard (Martin Kelsey): first seen 1st February


My focus on wetlands had meant that until the start of February I had not yet paid a visit to our nearby plains. Cyril and Janet had come out for a week’s birding tour with me, so there was an opportunity to take them there to see both Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Great and Little Bustards, wintering Merlin, newly arrived Great Spotted Cuckoo and Calandra Larks. We travelled down to the centre of Extremadura to find Black Wheatear, seeing an Osprey flying over the heart of Mérida, Extremadura’s capital city. We went to see a Sociable Lapwing, which had been found just a day earlier by a local fieldworker who was censusing Black-tailed Godwits. Close by we found a Brambling in a flock of Chaffinches, a bird that is always great to find and can sometimes be scarce. By now I was approaching 160 species and, as the second week of February started, there was the chance of the first wave of spring migrants. Sure enough, Lesser Kestrels were returning to a colony near the village of Campo Lugar and my first Egyptian Vulture of the year was seen at the eastern end of Monfragüe. 

Lesser Kestrel (Martin Kelsey): first seen 10th February


Every year, Extremadura hosts an International Bird Fair at Monfragüe and I am asked to take a group of guests on a short tour of Extremadura. We try to include a bit of everything, often starting in the southern part of the region and working north. With the itinerary planned a few weeks earlier, we had a fabulous first day with Black Wheatears, Bonelli’s Eagles, Spanish Imperial Eagles, Black Storks and Red-billed Chough (the latter new for the year) near the Sierra Grande of Hornachos in the centre of Badajoz province. 

Black Stork (Martin Kelsey): first seen 12th January


We started the following day in the city of Badajoz itself, beside the River Guadiana where we re-found a group of Caspian Tern that had been seen on and off there, as well as Squacco Heron. The final day, in the northern part of the Cáceres province, I took the group close to the border with Salamanca, a mountainous region with pinewoods. New birds for the year here included Common Crossbill and Coal Tit, and best of all, two Citril Finches which were feeding at the car park as we returned from a walk. These are great birds to see anywhere, and rather rare winter visitors to Extremadura. It was certainly not a species that I had banked on seeing at all during the year. 

Caspian Tern (Martin Kelsey): first seen 16th February


The next few days saw me carrying out bird survey work in a range of habitats not far from home. Most of the places I was visiting I had not been to before. I carried out timed counts of birds at different viewpoints (twenty in total). This was work that I would carry out periodically until June. This routine work would be good for finding a range of new spring migrants and indeed, during this first session, I added Short-toed Eagle and Black Kite to the list, but most unexpected was a Fieldfare, a very scarce winter visitor in Extremadura and certainly not guaranteed every year. At the end of February a work visit took me back to Mérida and I made a short detour to some gravel pits where a friend had found a Moustached Warbler a few days earlier. After some wait, it eventually showed itself (they are typically very elusive birds) and a newly arrived singing Sedge Warbler also put on a show. 

Short-toed Eagle (Martin Kelsey): first seen 22nd February



My first new bird in March was a Pallid Swift, passing a viewpoint near the Tamuja River. Later that day on my home, just outside Trujillo I stopped to watch a Spotted Crake that had been found a little earlier. Early spring 2022 turned out to be a very good season for this species, just a few days later I found one beside a small river which I had been checking regularly as a good crake spot. More spring migrants followed swiftly: Common Cuckoo, Woodchat Shrike, Western Subalpine Warbler, Northern Wheatear, Red-rumped Swallow. 

On my way to collect guests from Madrid, I stopped off at Arrocampo and a Savi’s Warbler was singing. I had time to check some nearby dehesa and was delighted to find both Willow Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff in song. It was 26th March and I had reached 200 species. It was the earliest that I had ever reached that landmark (most years it would take me up to mid-April) and by then, I was sure, that I had a good chance to at least break my own record for the year. 

I was leading a group for Speyside Wildlife for a week in late March, focusing on both birds and orchids. It was ideal time for both, the orchids were superb thanks to recent rain (we saw 19 species that week) and the tour’s timing coincided with more spring migrants. European Bee-eaters, Collared Pratincoles, Montagu’s Harriers, Nightingales: all by the end of March, with the total now standing at 210 species.

European Bee-eater (Martin Kelsey): first seen 27th March



(see Part 2 for Spring and Summer)

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