Saturday, 18 December 2010

Wonderful olives






















If you walk along the narrow lanes or tracks in the small range of hills where we live at any time from late November through to January you will be bound to hear the "thwack - thwack" of the traditional olive harvest. Families will be out in their small olive groves, using long poles to hit the branches of the trees, so that the olives fall onto nets placed on the ground below the tree. Apparently the olives drop more easily once there have been a couple of hard frosts. In the large scale commercial olive plantations elsewhere, the harvest is mechanical, but on the small family holdings, often on quite steep slopes, harvesting is really only possible by hand. The purists do not even use poles, preferring to collect the olives in their fingers. That way there is less damage to the twigs (especially to the buds) and the olives suffer less bruising. But this can be very time-consuming when one is collecting the quantities needed for oil. A skilled harvester can however use the pole in a way that reduces damage - tapping, almost caressing the branches, so the olives fall by the vibration of the tapping rather than through brute force. We have a small olive grove too, and the annual harvest is a real highlight for us, a real social occasion (as indeed it is for many families here), with a picnic lunch and plenty of banter. There are also roving teams able to offer help and they work on the olive harvest right through the winter.

We use both the hand-picking and the pole methods, working a tree, collecting the olives that have fallen onto the net, taking them in a bucket to a sieve (see the attached photo taken by our son Patrick) to remove twigs and leaves and then pouring the fruit into sacks. This year, with the help of my sister and some local friends, we collected 14 sackfuls. These we took to an olive press where we receive the oil from our very own olives (there are also nearby cooperatives, where one can exchange olives for cash or oil). It is always exciting waiting to be told what the weight of the crop is (this year we harvested 457 kilos), then to watch the olives pass by conveyor belt to the press itself. Finally, a real sense of satisfaction to watch our own olive oil being poured into the five litre containers. We took home 69 litres of oil - enoughh for our annual consumption.

Some olives remain on the trees and there are plenty left on the ground. None are wasted. They represent a great energy source for birds in winter: Azure-winged Magpies (which store olives under leaves, like Jays store acorns), Hawfinches and winter visitors like Song Thrushes and Blackcaps. For the latter, oilves represent a key part of their winter diet and huge numbers spend the winter here from Central Europe. Indeed on gentle stroll along our lane for a couple of hours yesterday I saw or heard over 150 Blackcaps. Old olive trees with their gnarled trunks provide great foraging areas for Short-toed Treecreepers whilst every year a pair of Hoopoe nest in a cavity in one of our trees.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The storks return






















We were sitting having lunch last Friday at a pavement cafe in the main square of our local town Trujillo on Friday, enjoying a wonderfully mild day (in the garden bees have been at the rosemary flowers). Our son Patrick looked up and spotted a White Stork standing on its nest, built on a platform beside a renovated tower (see photo). The nesting storks on the tops of the old buildings around the town's square are one of Trujillo's many attractions and the souvenir shops sell T-shirts with storks depicted. However, this was 10th December. It comes as a surprise to many of our visitors when I tell them that the White Storks are back on their nests in Trujillo by Christmas, for further north in Central Europe the storks are arriving only in early spring. The fact is our local White Storks are partial migrants, with many of the adults staying here all year round and occupying nests from mid-winter onwards (indeed in the lower altitude flood plains nearby, storks can be seen on their nests throughout the autumn. Our local birds do leave their nesting areas and their favoured spring feeding areas, the nearby plains, and congregrate at large rubbish tips or in the rice-growing area in central Extremadura where they seem to feed many on the exotic American crayfish. But by mid-winter they are back, the males arriving first to take occupancy of the nest (they usually return to the same nest)and often pairing up with the first female that shows an interest. The characteristic bill-clacking echoes across the square throughout the breeding season as birds use it to greet each other on return from feeding forays.

In Extremadura we have the highest density of breeding White Storks in Spain with over 11,000 pairs in 2004, a number which seems to be increasing each year. Not all nest on buildings, indeed there are as many pairs breeding in trees and near Cáceres there is even a colony nesting on top of large granite boulders.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Celebrating cranes


















This weekend saw the second Crane Festival in Extremadura, organised by the government (the Junta de Extremadura) and held at the Crane Information Centre of Moheda Alta, right within the most important region in Extremadura for wintering Common Crane, indeed the largest concentration of crane in the whole of Spain. Through guided excursions, activities for children, lectures as well as an opportunity to enjoy local food and watch folk dances, the idea is to celebrate the winter spectacle cranes here and to further increase the awareness of both local people as well as visitors from many other regions of Spain of this wonderful bird. The cranes themselves do their bit. Travelling around the area over the weekend there can hardly have been a moment when the evocative trumpeting of the cranes could not be heard or there were not parties of cranes in the sky (see the attached photo taken by a guest David Palmer). They formed a continuous background for us. My job was to take groups of visitors out on walks and bus trips to see cranes and other local birds. The only challenge was the weather (Sunday was particularly wet and windy) because the birds themselves were magnificently obliging. Flocks of hundreds of cranes beside the road..several thousand at a roost, their forms taking shape as the sun rose in a stormy sky and their bugling reaching crescendo as they set off to feed, superb formations of cranes heading to roost against a backdrop of the mountains. We also saw several Black-winged Kites and watched Black-bellied Sandgrouse feeding close-by. On a midday excursion, we unfortunatley hit a very heavy rain storm just as we started to look for Great Bustard. Finding a large flock standing motionless in a field, we two guides set up our telescopes on tripods, opened an umbrella each and our group descended two at a time from the bus to peer at the bustards before going back inside and two others coming out. An almost surreal way to show people such emblematic birds, but it will stay in the memories of all of us for a long long time.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

An exuberance of eagles




















There is nothing really quite like it. A sighting of one of our three big resident eagles species always, always brings excitement. Extremadura is one of the best places in the world to see eagles. The powerful and evocative Bonelli's Eagle (about 100 pairs here) I have mentioned several times in previous blogs, simply because for me it captures the spirit of remote, rocky valleys. The Spanish Imperial Eagle (see John Hawkins' photo) with about 50 pairs is noisy and combative, often seeking the opportunity for a tussle with a vulture. But it was the Golden Eagle (with about 125 pairs in Extremadura) which stole the show this week. The biggest of all three of the these resident species, it roams across large territories over the plains and mountains. The vast open spaces typical of Extremadura provide great hunting habitat.

It was a breezy mid-November day, with the clouds breaking from time to time to bring sunshine to the steppes. We had already seen a distant pair of Golden Eagle earlier in the day, but at our lunch spot we enjoyed watching a juvenile bird flying low across the terrain, its bright white wing flashes and base of tail contrasting strongly with its dark brown plumage. Just minutes later an adult Golden Eagle appeared, lacking the white markings and showing its diagnostic golden nape. It was not interested in the presence of the younger bird. Instead, it flapped upwards, gaining height until right over our heads. Then it did a somersault, so it was belly up and head down and then stooped in a great dive straight towards us. It then curved upwards again, the sheer momentum carrying it skywards to perform yet another somersault and dive. We were witnessing the Sky Dance of the Golden Eagle and this bird was truly performing with extraordinary exuberance. A third time it swooped up, flipped over and dived. We were mere onlookers (albeit ecstatic ones), this bird was performing for a different audience, its mate, which hung high in the sky, a stationary form. Not for the first time I reflected on how in contrast to our grounded two-dimensional perspective of the great dome of the sky, the eagles exploited and explored this space..they were truly in their element.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Scores of sandgrouse






















They looked at first like distant clods of earth - dark, round shapes just below the skyline. Watching them closely, one could see them shuffling around on the short sward, occasionally one rising slightly to flap its wings, a white belly and underwing catching the low morning sunlight. They were Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a flock of probably at least 70 birds. They are very special birds, much sought-after by visitors and therefore always a pleasure to find and show to guests. They epitomise the open steppe-country for me. The wide expanse of the plains, just twenty minutes from our home, with its largely traditional mixed-farming rotation system, which allows the thin poor soil to rest for long periods is ideal for this species. They like either close sheep-cropped pasture or fallow rich in pioneer "weeds", as long as the vegetation is not too high- their short legs and necks mean that tall plants would curtail their visibility enormously. They are also quite faithful to particular areas. We found our first group of the day feeding at the top end of a field. Our second group we saw first in flight, almost Golden Plover-like, with rapid beats of rather long-pointed wings interspersed with characteristic long glides as the birds wheeled, turned, rose and descended. Typically this flock (numbering almost a hundred birds)stayed together at the beginning and then split up into twos and threes heading off in all directions. As they fly many were giving their characteristic gull-like call, which is far-carrying and a excellent way of locating their presence. The pin-tail (long central tail feathers) are hard to see on the ground, showing best when the bird is in flight. It is a gorgeously-coloured bird, with a rich orange breast and beautiful markings on the upperparts, as this picture by John Hawkins shows. The third group, also at least 70-strong, we found feeding on a grassy slope, close to the road at the end of the day, the winter afternoon light picking up the plumage gloriously. With a grand total of the day of perhaps about 250 sandgrouse, this must have been my best ever day for this species, especially with the prolonged and evocative views as we had enjoyed, a centrepiece for a really enjoyable day of winter birding in Extremadura.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Gems in rocky places



















During our supposed low season, I often do short pieces of work for the charity Save the Children, for whom I used to work full-time. This usually involves trips of about a week or so to give training and mentoring to teams of people managing programmes of work in different parts of the world. The last few weeks have seen me in South America, the Middle-East and South Africa. It is very different from life in Extremadura, keeps me in touch with former colleagues and gives me the chance to meet some wonderful and inspiring people making a real difference to children's lives. Of course as far as life and birdwatching in Extremadura is concerned there really is no such thing as a low season - there are always jobs to do in the garden and always great birds to see. During my brief stopovers here I have managed to pick olives for curing, cleared up old olive suckers for burning and started preparing the vegetable garden for the winter. The autumn is an exciting time for birding as the migration continues and winter visitors start to arrive. There are now hundreds of Common Cranes already here and the sunny days are encouraging Woodlarks to sing over the garden, accompanying the autumnal song of our wintering Robins. Being away for much fo the time I have managed to miss some national rarities that have made an appearance here: Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. One wonders how many other North American species come through the area...there is a lot of suitable habitat and very few birders. The visiting birders who have stayed with us this month have had a rewarding time. Eagles are much harder to find at this time of the year, but otherwise most of the sought-after species have been seen. Tom and Greg Mabbett stayed a week in the middle of the month and were fortunate enough to come across a Wallcreeper in Monfragüe National Park See the attached photo of their's). These are gorgeous little birds, real gems with butterfly like wings revealing a beautiful crimson feathers. They nest in the Pyrenees and were considered to be extremely rare in Extremadura. However, in recent years in October there have been single records, suggesting that there is a passage through the area. Some may spend the winter here too. In 2008, I took a family to a peak high in the Villuercas mountains in early January, looking for Alpine Accentor. We sat on rocks overlooking a deep gully when suddenly a crimson and grey shape flew across. It showed itself again a few minutes later. My first Wallcreeper in Extremadura and at the time only the seventh record. It was one of those wonderful days when cloud covered the landscape below, whilst we sat in sunshine. Looking across the mattress of white cloud, one could pick-out in absolute claity other distant high peaks. The thought crossed my mind that all the Wallcreeper needed to do to reach here was to fly from one peak to another (island-hopping, as it were), all the way from the north. This Wallcreeper stayed at that site for two months, was seen by other birders and even makes a mention in Alan Davies and Ruth Miller's book The Biggest Twitch!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Autumn sunshine



There is a real sense of the turn of the seasons at the moment. I had been away for two weeks and returned to find the days noticeably fresher. There had been some rain on the day I returned, but since then we have enjoyed several days of clear blue skies. Although there has not yet been enough rain to start to turn the plains green, a light purplish sheen betrays patches of Autumn Crocuses, whilst in the Monfragüe National Park the banks have the delightful Autumn Snowflake with spikes of Autumn Squill mixed with them. There are still lots of hirundines: dense flocks of House Martins feeding over the crags and Red-rumped Swallows in the garden. We also got three glimpses of White-rumped Swifts in the park. Taking my good friend Mark out on the plains we had superb views in excellent light of Great Bustards feeding nearby and each fence seemed to hold Whinchats and Northern Wheatears. The harvest is well underway on the rice fields and where the stubble is ploughed, hundreds of Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, along with Little and Cattle Egret feast on the stirred up sediment. Parties of waders are still coming through: Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Avocet.Just to mix things up even further, Red Avadavats are still nest-building. But what has been most pleasing has been the number of butterflies: in Monfragüe an impressive Two-tailed Pasha, whilst pristine Common Swallowtails seem almost everywhere. On the buddleia in the garden yesterday there were two Common Swallowtails and no fewer than eight Cardinals, paying no attention whatsoever to my proximity. One treasures these warm sunny autumn days..rain is forecast soon, the plains will turn green and it will not be long now before the skeins of cranes start arriving.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Garden stepping stones


We returned from a week's holiday in Galicia and the following morning I heard a rather rich, mellow song coming from deep in the foliage of an almond tree in the garden. It threw me for a moment, I could not place it. It was clearly a Sylvia warbler, but was not right for Blackcap, which is a common bird here, especially in the winter. I caught a glimpse of movement in the tree and then saw the bird. It was a Garden Warbler. I reflected that it was probably the first time in over fifteen years since I had heard their song, the first time since we left the UK, that is. They do not breed in our part of Spain and although I see them on passage every spring and autumn, this is the first time one has taken up temporary residence in the garden. "Of course" I said to myself, mentally kicking myself for not recognising the song straight away, especially since separating the rather similar songs of Blackcap and Garden Warbler was one of the tests my father frequently gave me when I was a small boy! I am rather fond of Garden Warblers. They have an understated brownish-grey appearance (usually unkindly described as nondescript), which I think makes them look warm and soft, especially with a dark beady eye and rather stubby bill.

The Garden Warbler is using our garden as a stepping stone, a refuelling stop on its long migration from central Europe to southern Africa. August and September are particularly interesting in that respect, suddenly birds which neither breed or winter locally make an appearance and make themselves at home amongst the shrubs and trees next to the house: Willow Warblers, Whitethroats, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Common Redstarts. I wonder if the same individuals come back for a few days each autumn. I suspect so. In 2008 and 2009, a Western Bonelli's Warbler was in the garden on almost the same dates...surely the same bird was concerned. It is well known that most migratory birds return to their same breeding territories each spring. When I was doing research on Marsh Warblers wintering in southern Zambia (where Garden Warblers were also common in winter), almost 50% of the birds that I had ringed in one winter were back in the same site the following year. If one assumes that the annual mortality rate for a small bird like that could be about 50% as well, this would mean that almost all of the birds surviving from one year to the next had returned to the same wintering site. This I found remarkable and made me feel humbled thinking about the extraordinary navigational skills of these small birds. If one takes a flight across the Sahara, one can spend hours staring out of the window onto to a vast featureless inhospitable landscape. All of these birds are successfully crossing the desert and for those heading for southern Africa the journey is still far from over. It amazes me that through a combination of mapping the stars, having an internal chronometer as well as memory of visual clues, a bird weighing just a few grams will return to a clump of trees and bushes each year in the spring to nest and to another favoured patch of trees and bushes in the southern hemisphere to spend the winter. Our garden provides a vital stepping stone for a few individuals for a few days as part of their extraordinary journey..I watch this Garden Warbler in awe and admiration.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Celebrating swifts


Today is my first day back home after my annual trip to the UK for the British Birdwatching Fair. I sat with a cup of tea at the big granite table in front of the house, half an hour or so after dawn, watching against a clear blue sky a loose party of hirundines feeding quite low down. Chunky House Martins, slimmer Barn Swallows and the wonderfully attentuated Red-rumped Swallows. They wheeled and fluttered, swooped and darted. As I watched my gaze was then attracted to some quite different birds. Flying higher up and entering the arena with almost a detached disdain and purposeful collective glide was a feeding party of swifts, reminding me of the way a shoal of sharks might suddenly appear, dominate the scene and then drift off, silently, without almost a ripple as it were. They appeared to be mainly Common Swifts, probably birds already on migration attracted to the tiny invertebrates hundreds of metres above me. Within a few days this species will have left Extremadura en masse for tropical Africa. There were certainly a few Pallid Swifts amongst them, appearing paler with very extensive whitish throats. This species stays around for much longer than the Common Swift and can be seen well into October. Then a much larger bird appeared, again gliding over, even higher up, looking at first almost like a small slim raptor. It was an Alpine Swift, the biggest of them all, with its tail fanned out to appear almost rounded (very like the attached photo which my friend John Hawkins took this spring). Over the next few minutes another four or five Alpine Swifts glided over, all in the same direction, the morning sun catching their white bellies. Just a few minutes later, all of the swifts had passed through.

I love swifts and Extremadura is a great area for them. The town of Trujillo has many pairs of both Common and Pallid and there is nothing quite like walking along the deep narrow streets and having one's head almost knocked off by a rowdy pack of screaming swifts as they zoom up and down streets and alleys, climbing above the rooftops and diving down again almost to pavement level. They remind one of gangs of kids, running and yelling without a care and showing absolutely no respect for anyone else. I love the way they fly into their tiny nestholes in old masonery or under tiles at a seemingly breakneck speed. I took a group of teenagers on a guided walk of Trujillo this summer to show them birds and it was the swifts that pulled out all the stops for them. They were fascinated to hear that swifts only come to land when they nest, spending the rest of the year on the wing, sleeping on the wing and, which brought the inevitable smirks from the teenagers, copulating on the wing as well. Swifts can travel hundreds of kilometres to avoid bad weather and have very low mortality for a bird of that size. They occasionally fall prey of small falcons, like Hobbies. A couple of years ago on the Norfolk coast, I watched a party of migrating swifts flying over a very rough sea, making slow progress against a gale. A Hobby had clearly cottoned onto this, flying out to sea and managing after a very short chase to catch a swift which it carried back inland.

Here in Extremadura it is possible to see four species of swift in a day. As well as Alpine, Pallid and Common, we also have small numbers of White-rumped Swift which arrive in early May and stay around until October. They can be found in rocky areas, such as Monfragüe National Park, where they use the old nests of Red-rumped Swallows. This year has been excellent for this species and I have enjoyed wonderful views of White-rumped Swifts coming down to the slow-flowing rivers there to drink on the wing. I have not yet seen this species over the garden, although I am sure they do pass over, as I suspect they could well be nesting on cliffs about ten kilometres away.

The streets of Trujillo will feel quite different once the swifts have gone and one can only marvel at how this ultimate denizen of the skies explores and masters the dynamics of air currents and pressure systems across half the planet.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Summer swings into autumn


Here in Extremadura there is the clear sensation that by mid-August the season is shifting from summer to autumn. The nights are a bit longer, it starts to feel a bit fresher at dawn and changes are afoot as far as the birds are concerned. Over the garden the Bee-eaters are in noisy flocks. As well as our local pair of pale-phase Booted Eagles, we are getting more sightings of juveniles and dark-phased birds..presumably starting to head south. There are now far fewer Black Kites around. Down on the rice fields, where the wader passage started several weeks ago, there was much less suitable habitat yesterday than on my previous visit. Open, fallow fields had dried up and were largely devoid of birds, whilst the rice in the paddies has grown much taller, making it much harder to see any birds feeding there. However, there were good numbers of Ruff (mainly juveniles), Wood Sandpipers and Green Sandpipers, as well as Common Snipe and Little Stint which had not been present on my visit in July. I arrived before dawn and whilst I sat to wait for the light to improve, I listened to the dawn chorus of Red Avadavats. This tiny exotic finch (hailing from South Asia) is clearly quite at home in the ditches beside the paddies. They are late breeders, nesting in August and September. Their call is a thin, high pitched, slightly wavering note and this was emanating from clumps of rushes where the birds had been roosting. They are invariably in small groups, which bound along the road as one drives slowly along. Here they occur alongside Common Waxbills, another escapee, this time from Africa, which tends to be less restrictive in habitat choice, liking bushy or rank vegetation (I have seen them in our garden, but is still quite localised. Being here before dawn also enabled me to pass by a wonderful Cattle Egret and Jackdaw roost, willow bushes adorned with hundreds of white and hundreds of black birds, mingled together. August is the only month here when I am likely to find Purple Heron at this site and true enough one juvenile was present, having probably arrived from the breeding population on the nearby Guadiana river. More surprising was a Squacco Heron, only the second one I have seen here on countless visits, another sign of post-breeding dispersal.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Garden butterflies













Since moving in, little by little, we have been putting in flowering shrubs and other plants in the garden, trying to make it as attractive as possible for butterflies. Two Buddleia shrubs, as expected, have been superb with a throng some days of Cardinals, Common and Scarce Swallowtails, Clouded Yellows, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies. Our lavenders are thriving and are loved by bees and butterflies alike. Here is a photo of the gorgeous Marsh Fritillery on a lavender flower, taken by one of our regular guests, Peter Boardman. The delicate Long-tailed Blue is another common species in the garden, sometimes on the lavender or chasing each other high in the canopy of the trees beside the pool. The other photo shows the Two-tailed Pasha, the biggest of them all, perched on the hand of our son, Patrick a couple of days ago, when I returned from a two week trip abroad. The Two-tailed Pasha's larval food plant is the strawberry tree, a common native species here (and I have planted five specimens in the garden), but what attracts the adults is rotting fruit and as the fig season approaches I suspect we shall see many more of this magnificent butterfly.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Waders moving through


In my last blog I described hearing a Green Sandpiper over the garden in the middle of a warm night..this morning I visited my favourite spot in the nearby rice fields to see what waders were starting to appear. I left the house before dawn, seeing a Red-necked Nightjar settled on the road leading out of the village. I reached my destination just as the sun was rising, showering a golden light over the lush green paddies. Practically all of the fields are deep in growing rice and apart from White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets and a few Black-winged Stilt and Lapwing, it is hard to see very much amongst the crop. It is deceptive, because large flocks of Mallard with a few Teal flew up from these fields, where they had been feeding overnight, quite invisible. Much more productive would be the the few fields which for some reason had been left muddy with no crop. Open wet mud...ideal for waders. These indeed were thronging with birds...lots of Black-winged Stilts (I counted at least 350) with a small number of juvenile birds as well (see the photo..taken this morning) which were presumbaly from local pairs. About 40 Collared Pratincole, again with barred juveniles present. An astonishing number of Little Ringed Plover (at least 370 in three adjacent fields), along with four Kentish Plovers. I wondered if these again were local birds, concentrating here because of the ideal conditions, or whether some of these were from further afield. Gull-billed Terns hawked overhead and a post-breeding party of about 70 Calandra Lark flew over.

However, it was the waders on passage from further afield that I always find most intriguing here, deep as we are in inland Spain, and I was not disappointed: Greenshank, Redshank, Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Ringed Plover, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, even a single Whimbrel. A total of 14 species of wader all told..and autumn passage is only just starting!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Sleeping under the stars


After our short holiday to see family in England, we are now back in Extremadura. It is the height of summer and the hottest time of the year. At the moment we are hitting daily maxima of 38 degrees Celsius and at night time it is staying around 26 degrees. Life is very different when it is like this. There is plenty of work to do, (although July is always very quiet as far as bookings are concerned) what with the garden and catching up with chores and maintenance of the house. The vegetable garden is having a great year and since returning from holiday, I have been busy picking and freezing dwarf beans and runner beans. It looks as if we will have a bumper crop of tomatoes, so each evening I need to tend and water them. However, any outdoor work needs careful planning and days here when it is hot follow a clear routine. Up with the sunrise (around 6 am) and try to get as much outdoor work done as possible before late morning. The dawn chorus is now reduced to the sound of our huge House Sparrow roost waking up and the calls from the swallows coming to drink at the swimming pool, along with the calls of Golden Oriole and Hawfinch. By late morning it is getting too hot to be outside and literally dozens of House Martins, Barn Swallows and Red-rumped Swallows are resting in the shade under the eaves or, amazingly sunning themselves on a ledge on our south-facing frontage, adopting bizarre stupified postures. So to work indoors until lunch and then siesta in the cool darkness of the bedroom. At 5 pm it is approaching the hottest time of the day, but there is nothing like a post-siesta swim in the pool...it leaves one wholly rejuvenated..otherwise I end up feeling a bit like one of those stupified swallows.

Back then to desk work. I have just received from Eling Lee from Hong Kong, some photos that she and her husband took during their stay here in late May. They had come to Spain to see the Inter Milan - Bayern Munich match in Madrid and stayed on for some days birding with me. It was also fairly hot then, but we had a very successful trip. The picture I have posted here is one that Eling took of a Rufous Bush Robin singing from the top of a vine. This species is a very late arriving summer visitor and typically will be found singing even in the hottest time of the day, out in the open in tracts of intensive vineyards and olive groves.

These days we tend to wait until at least 10.30 pm or 11 pm to eat, sitting outside at dusk with a light meal, watching the bats come out. A couple of nights ago, we dragged an airbed out onto the terrace and slept under an amazing back drop of the Milky Way, with a sucession of planets visible during the short night: Venus..Mars..Jupiter...Saturn. Scops Owls called on and off throughout the night and sometimes a Little Owl also was heard. At one point, I heard a Green Sandpiper calling very close by, perhaps attracted by reflections on the pool? These birds are now returning to Extremadura after their brief breeding season in Northern Europe. And just before dawn at least two Red-necked Nightjars gave their chock-chock chorus.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Red-necked Nightjarring


One evening, as our busy season is ending, no dinners to serve, no washing-up to do, so I slipped out just before dusk to walk ten minutes up the lane near the house. We can hear the Red-necked Nightjars calling from the house from mid-April, at dusk and at dawn and sometimes one will glide across the garden. But to get better views it is best to head for a quiet track between the olive groves, stopping at a point where one's view is reasonably unobstructed. There is something special about being out as night falls and the bats start appearing. As a boy, I would head to a local oak wood, stand at the edge and wait for the roding flight of the Woodcock, that extraordinarily cryptic wader that circles each territory at dusk uttering a series of grunts followed by a loud whip-crack of a call. Sometimes there would be the chance to go "nightjarring", which meant a drive to a forestry plantation to listen to the churring of European Nightjars and the occasional glimpse of this long-winged, long-tailed bird.

Here our nightjars are Red-necked, slightly larger than the European with a very different call: a repetitive "chock-chock". Standing on this track that evening I watched a bird glide over head and then another performing its wing-clapping display. I heard one calling from a holm oak tree and then watched as it flew across my path to settle in another tree to my right. They would be heading off to search for moths, doutless making use of the lamps in the village street (the attached photo was taken by my freind John Hawkins in a nearby village). By now the light was very poor and I made my way back home, pausing to look at a glow-worm on the stone wall and listening the soft hoot of a Long-eared Owl, whilst a Scops Owl called nearby and Nightingale song filled the bushes. Such evenings are always memorable.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Kaleidoscope of flowers and raptor rapture


It had been a great day, the morning on the plains with good views of Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a bachelor group of 15 Great Bustards, Tawny Pipit, four species of lark and lots of Montagu's Harriers. At lunch we had watched a Little Bustard calling amidst a field of kaleidoscope colours of masses of wild flowers. Then, just as mid-afternoon approached, the temperature was edging upwards and what could very easily have been the quietest part of the day, we had what could only be described as fifteen minutes of sheer magnificence. We had stopped to take a walk, beside a field where hay was being baled. I spotted an immature Golden Eagle, quite low over the back of the field, apparently searching the cut hay for any prey. We watched it as it hunted, with the farmers working the machinery in the foreground. We then heard the barking of a Spanish Imperial Eagle and an immature flew swiftly in from the right, intent on chasing the Golden Eagle away. A pursuit ensued, the slightly smaller Spanish Imperial Eagle mobbing the Golden Eagle vigorously. As we watched them, something caught my eye above us. It was another Golden Eagle, this time an adult, soaring above us. We then noticed that below it was another juvenile Golden Eagle! Three in the sky at the same time!

A second juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle arrived on the scene and flew low and rather heavily to the left and then back again in front of us. Less than a minute later an adult Bonelli's Eagle flew past, chasing the imperial! Above us a second Bonelli's appeared soaring high amongst Griffon Vultures. The first Bonelli's returned, giving us a superb flypast.

It had been a great day for raptors, earlier we had seen two Bonelli's Eagles, four Short-toed Eagles and four Booted Eagles..so all five eagle species, and ten other raptor species as well! What a day!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Meeting the challenge


Sometimes people ask me to guide for a full week, which is great because it means that we can visit the full range of habitats at hand, revisit special sites and if we miss a species at one place, there will also be an opportunity of going to other places where I know the species occurs. Other people book me for a day, which usually means a short visit to the plains followed by Monfragüe National Park for raptors. Usually we find everything that we want, sometimes because of weather or simply the unpredictability of wild birds, we fail on one or two species...that's birding. I have just completed two day's guiding for Steve and Rochelle who came with some very specific requests: Black-winged Kite, Great Bustard, Collared Pratincole, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Roller, Golden Oriole and Eagle Owl. That was my challenge for last Sunday and yesterday (Tuesday)...on Monday they did their own thing.

Day One: Sandgrouse can be tricky so first thing on Sunday morning we went to a favourite spot of mine, where I had seen both species a few days' earlier. As we arrived a distant Great Spotted Cuckoo flew across a field, whilst a male Little Bustard stood and called. Stopping to scan, I found two displaying male Great Bustards, with a few females close by. We had arrived early enough to avoid the heat haze and the views were magnificent. Whilst watching them, I heard and then saw two Black-bellied Sandgrouse dropping into a nearby field. We headed in that direction and quickly found them, along with about ten others. The heat shimmer was starting, but we could watch them reasonably well as they foraged in the short vegetation of a fallow field. Fortunately, six Pin-tailed Sandgrouse came in to land beside them...that was good luck!

We then moved onto another area of open ground where nestboxes have been put on telegraph poles for Rollers. A Roller was perched on a cable nearby. It flew towards a box, seemingly occupied by Jackdaws. Its mate flew in to join it and then ensued a noisy interaction between the Rollers and the slightly larger Jackdaws. The Rollers sought to displace the Jackdaws, which sat resolutely on the roof of the box, one curiously striking the roof with its bill, making a knocking sound. Great views.

From there to a reservoir, usually a good haunt for Collared Pratincole. I saw one fly away as we arrived, but the views were poor. The water level was very high and the island usually occupied by nesting pratincoles was under water. We decided to drive along a track along the opposite shore. We stopped and watched as about six Collared Pratincoles flew close by, some of them settling on a small spit alongside a group of Litle Tern. So far so good.

Then to Monfragüe and after lunch at my favourite picnic site to watch nesting Griffon Vultures and Egyptian Vultures, we headed to a site called Portilla del Tiétar. It is wonderful spot, and to the north the snow-capped Gredos mountains were visible. As we walked to the viewpoint, my attention was drawn to a small swift flying low overhead with a rapid wing beat. As I watched it twisted and turned a few times, showing well its narrow white-rump. White-rumped Swifts do not usually arrive until May..this was an exceptionally early arrival. We did not have to wait long before a fine adult Spnaish Imperial Eagle appeared from the north, carrying a large snake. It flapped rather laboriously, making slow soars before disappearing from view. We stayed on for an hour or so, carefully scanning the rock face in front of us for Eagle Owl, but with no success. However, very pleased with the day's results, we headed back home, stopping briefly at the Salto de Gitano viewpoint in Monfragüe where we were not only rewarded with another Spanish Imperial Eagle, but also a second White-rumped Swift, this time high about the rock face opposite.

Day Two: We had Black-winged Kite, Golden Oriole and Eagle Owl still on the needed list, but I also wanted Steve and Rochelle to have better views of Great Spotted Cuckoo. So first thing we headed to a particularly good area for them, and a pair was seen flying past just as we entered the area. We could not find any others, so we returned to the initial spot and back to the main road. The birds reappeared, and luckily I knew of a good pull-of just a hundred metres down the road. There we parked and waited....because the birds were heading in our direction! Over the next few minutes we had wonderul views of three Great Spotted Cuckoos, with interaction between them and Magpies, as well as what seemed to be a territorial spat between the cuckoos themselves. Great!

Then up the road to a site where we found easily a pair of Black-winged Kite which we watched as they perched on dead trees and flew over the fields. From there we went up a beautiful small valley where the trees echoed with the sounds of calling Golden Orioles. At first, we were only getting flight views, but at last a male flew to an exposed perched and gave us superb views.

We then returned home, our plan being to rest a bit in the afternoon and then head out after dinner for another attempt at Eagle Owl. During the afternoon, Steve and Rochelle had a shortwalk, coming back overjoyed having had good views of a Wryneck...a real bonus!

We set off after an early dinner and arrived at the Portilla del Tiétar at just after 8.30 pm, just as an Eagle Owl started to call softly. It stopped shortly afterwards and didn't really resume until after 9.15 pm, by which time the light was starting to fade and the bats had emerged. As it got darker, the frequency and volume of the calls increased: there were clearly two adults and the yelping begging calls of young were also audible. It was a magical experience, hearing the deep hoot resonate across the narrow valley, with the sound of Red-necked Nightjars in the background. Suddenly movement was seen and one of the adults flew north, off to hunt, a large powerful bird, gliding more than flapping. The remaining adult continued calling until it too flew off, this time east and directly low overhead.

That evocative moment was the cue to head back home, our mission well and truly accomplished.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Battling bustards

The last few days we have been helping as much as we can those guests who have been stranded by the unprecedented air travel closure, so I have had barely time to sit down to write up the blog. But I do want to share with you the fascinating and extraordinary sighting that a guest, Ralph Tiller and I had recently. We had stopped to look at a pair of Little Owls and as I scanned the area, I picked-up what I initially took to be a displaying male Great Bustard nearby. In the 'scope, it was clear that actually "it" was two males, face to face, a few centimetres apart, staring at each other. This face-off continued to the point when they started to fight. It was an aggressive bout, with one bird clasping the other's head with its bill. They tousled and pushed, one forcing the other towards a fence, then close to the ground. Feathers started to fly. Meanwhile, two or three females nonchalantly strode past. Eventually the fight finished with the males separating and heading off in different directions, one appearing slightly wounded around the head.

I had never seen this before, although there is a description of such behaviour written by Nigel Collar in Birds of the Western Paleartic. What was great was that Ralph videoed the whole episode and once I have sorted out the softward, this will be available for you to see!

Menawhile, another few days of windy, wet weather is hanging over us, slowing down the spring migration, but we have been enjoying the sound of a Nightingale singing close to the house, throughout most of the day and night!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Honeyguiding in Extremadura


Every spring, in March, I help lead a holiday in Extremadura for the small tour company Honeyguide. It is run by Chris Durdin (ex-RSPB) and has a strong conservation ethic. Each year the holiday in Extremadura makes a donation to the Spanish Ornithological Society (this year over 900 euros) and similar support to given to local conservation bodies and projects in all of its destinations. The company has a very loyal client base (indeed all 14 of the members on this year's holiday had been on Honeyguide holidays before) and aims at those who have a broad interest in natural history, so ample time is given not just to birds, but also other animals and plants. We really explore to get a good idea of not just what is around, but also what makes it tick, understanding the landscape, visiting different habitats. Although botanically the spring has been slow, we found almost all of the plants we were hoping for, including six species of orchids and some wonderful specimens of Iberian Fritillary. The generally wet and windy weather made the butterfly list a short one, but we did get excellent views of the Nettle-Tree Butterfly in Monfragüe. We did well on birds with all of the expected migrants in for the date such as Subalpine Warblers, and still some unexpected winter birds like a late flock of 150 Common Crane. In the two of three days since the group returned home, better weather has brought a big flow of migrants: my first Rollers, Bee-eaters and Black-eared Wheatears of the spring for example.

Today, being Palm Sunday, the village gathered at the church, under clear blue skies and warm temperatures, with Bee-eaters calling high over head and the storks on the church belfry looking on. Everyone had brought, instead of palm fronds, bunches of olive branches and rosemary sprigs. It was a moving communal event, firmly based around the typical plants important to the life of the village.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Spring comes rolling in


I have just completed leading a thoroughly enjoyable and productive six day tour here in Extremadura and after three months of seemingly almost endless rain, the sunny days and blue skies were a blessing indeed. The landscape is emerald green now, with a haze of yellow crucifer, with clumps of wild narcissus. We did extremely well for birds, each day producing memorable highlights: my first Purple Heron of the spring, four Spoonbill flying in a line against a deep blue sky, no fewer than twenty species of birds of prey, a total of 75 Great Bustards and wonderfully close views of Little Bustard in a flower-rich meadow, fifteen species of wader (not bad for the interior of Spain in mid-March), both sandgrouse, no fewer than ten Great Spotted Cuckoo sightings in one morning, eye-level views of Alpine Swifts in the mountains, Pallid Swifts in late afternoon sunshine whilst we sat in the main square of Trujillo, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming near the house literally as we were leaving for the airport, Calandra Larks rising in groups to sing over the plains, a Bluethroat standing tail-cocked beside a ditch in the rice fields, a Penduline Tit singing on a willow tree. Still present were groups of winter birds (Common Crane and Grey Lag Goose) but also a real sense of spring migration underway: groups of Red and Black Kite drifting north, an Osprey arriving to feed in front of us. It was the combination of great company from our guests, amazingly good birding plus the glorious weather that made this trip such a memorable one.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Urban Birding with the Urban Birder





Mérida is the capital city of Extremadura with a very important Roman heritage. One of the most impressive features is the Roman bridge which spans the Guadiana river right in the centre of the city. As well as an extraordinary historic site, it can also be one of the best places for birding in Extremadura. I was there at dawn on Wednesday with David Lindo (aka the Urban Birder - see his website www.theurbanbirder.com) and his photographer Russell Spencer. David is a passionate advocate of the joys of urban birding, demonstrating what tremendous opportunities there are in towns and cities around the world. Most people live in cities and yet many overlook just what potential there is right on their doorsteps to watch birds and other wildlife. David is a great communicator and on top of that, an outstanding birder - I enjoyed every minute of the two days I had to show David and Russell some of the urban birding opportunities in Extremadura.

In just an hour on the Roman Bridge we had seen Purple Swamphen, Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little and Cattle Egrets, Penduline Tit, Spanish Sparrow, Alpine and Pallid Swifts, as well as great views of Cetti's Warbler, amongst others. An impressive host of species for any site, but here we were in the centre of the city, with people passing by all the time on their way to work. We also visited Cáceres and Trujillo to watch White Storks and Lesser Kestrels: towns that are on the ornithological map and holding international status for their conservation value.

We sneaked a quick visit to areas close by as well: hearing the first Common Cuckoo of the spring, watching a male Great Bustard in practice for the courtship season, seeing a juvenile Golden Eagle mobbing Griffon Vultures and bidding farewell to some of the last Common Cranes of the winter as they flew in a skein high above.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Winter Atlas top ten





















On Friday I completed the fieldwork for my allocated survey areas in eastern Extremadura for the Spanish Winter Bird Atlas. As I wrote in my blog of 22nd December, this has been a magnificent way over the last three winters to get know parts of the area that I had rarely visited before, or to explore beyond my regular routes in those patches which I know well. I used the internet to plan routes along little-used paths and tracks and then headed out for a good six hour hike (or slow walk actually) to record every individual of every species of bird detected in the course of 15 minute-long transects (whilst recording habitat type as well). Such were my atlasing days in the field.

The areas that I was assigned to cover included pretty much a good cross-section of the local landscapes: plains, open woodland, scrub, rice fields, olive groves and orchards, uplands and a couple of small water bodies. We will have to wait for the book to be published by SEO (the Spanish Ornithological Society) to see the results and analysis in full, but I have had some fun just adding up my figures.

Over the last three years, I did 420 transects, i.e. 105 hours of formal observation time. On these transects I counted an amazing 34,857 individual birds of a total of 129 species. We also had the chance to note down species that were not detected during the formal transects, such as during other visits to the area, so there were other species like Alpine Accentor, Black Wheatear, Penduline Tit and even Wallcreeper that I found in the 10-km squares but they do not appear in these species lists of formal transect data.

Of the 34,857 birds the top ten in terms of numbers are:

1) Spanish Sparrow (5070 individuals)
2) Lapwing (2453)
3) House Sparrow (2403)
4) Spotless Starling (2080)
5) Common Crane (1807)
6) Chaffinch (1568)
7) Meadow Pipit (1096)
8) Goldfinch (1092)
9) Azure-winged Magpie (1015)
10) Serin (897)

Just taking a quick view through my data shows up some nice habitat associations: where there are olives there are lots of wintering Blackcaps (in such areas Blackcaps are one of the most numerous birds), but they are much less common in other habitats, nevertheless a total of 571 Blackcaps were recorded. I found 610 Robins, 419 wintering Chiffchaff, 358 Corn Bunting and 177 Hoopoes!

But beyond the numbers, I have a rich collection memories from my winter atlasing..birds that I had never before found whilst birding in my area of Extremadura like Fieldfare and Woodcock. Others were birds that the fieldwork gave me a much better sense of their true status here: Bluethroat in the rice fields, Bullfinch (which is a rare wintering visitor (I recorded five individuals, in areas which I had no idea they were present). The key to this was that I was on foot and covering large areas of habitat in forensic detail. And then there are the spectacular sights: the close encounter with Bonelli's Eagles as describd in my blog of 4th February, Golden Eagles mobbed by Ravens, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on adjacent telegraph posts, testing the different parts of the structure to get the best resonance, Firecrests hovering amongst the foliage of cork oaks..........

The Winter Atlas fieldwork is completed but next winter I must make sure I continue my explorations on foot.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Close encounter with Bonelli's Eagles


























It was half past one and I had been walking for four and half hours in a remote area of eastern Extremadura doing some fieldwork for the Winter Birds Atlas. I was in a quiet valley, quite wide, with scrub-covered slopes, some rocky outcrops and a strip of alder gallery woodland (full of Siskins) beside the river. This I thought to myself looks good eagle habitat. Just a few minutes later, I heard a loud whooooosh and an object whizzed past me at great speed just a few metres away and close to the ground. My first split-second reaction was that it was a hunting Goshawk, but as I got my binoculars on it, its true identity was obvious: a Bonelli's Eagle. It pounced onto a Red-legged Partridge on valley slope nearby. The partridge flew up, but then a second Bonelli's Eagle arrived, at the same speed as the first, and had a go at it. The eagles had appeared out of nowhere and had been completely oblivious of my presence, so focused were they on their prey. I was simply very close to the end-point of their almighty stoop. It got better. The first eagle flew up from the vegetation and headed in my direction to land on a small pylon barely thirty metres away. Once perched only then did it notice me. For a minute or so it seemed uncertain over what to do, then it flew to the next pylon away, where it was joined by its mate (without the partridge...which presumably got away). The two sat there in the sunshine and then one-by-one flew off, passing low and close to me, giving me, as it were a disapproving look, before slowly gaining height and circling together well above the outcrops. They are truly magnificent birds, my favourite of the eagles, whose shape just spells power and whose presence epitomises rocky, wild areas. They are called in German the Goshawk-Eagle, in Spanish their full name means the partridge-hunting Goshawk-Eagle. They are strategic bird hunters, often working as pairs (I have seen them as a pair ambush flocks of Wood Pigeons, performing perfect pincer tactics), with the female significantly larger than the male (normal with raptors, but especially so amongst the bird hunters such as Merlin, Peregrine, Sparrwohawk and Goshawk).

The experience left me exhilarated, so much so that wading the numbingly icy river a few minutes later was easy...my head was just full of this close encounter, which will remain forever as such a vivid memory. The photo attached was taken last spring by a guest of ours. Mark Mallalieu.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Five days of brilliant birding




















Even by Extremadura standards, the last five days have been hard to beat in terms of sheer birding excellence. It has involved some very different approaches to the art: two days of Winter Atlas survey work meaning walking and recording the number of individuals of every species encountered, two days of guiding where success is measured by the "wow" factor from one's clients and a few hours on the fifth day of simple birding - in this case going through a flock of wintering geese.

The systematic atlas fieldwork yielded no fewer than eleven wintering Bluethroats in the space of an hour and a half, including some very smart males. There were interesting records of waders such as ten Curlew, 70 Avocet, 700+ Dunlin, raptors like Merlin, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier and fascinating totals like 98 different Chiffchaff seen on my walk through the rice fields. In the woodland, on a bitterly cold morning, the very first bird seen was a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, followed by a singing Woodlark, followed by a Kingfisher! I kept bumping into Firecrests and later on I found a flock of 40 Cirl Bunting.

I was able to show some of the Bluethroats to our guest, Mark, as well on our first day together the huge flocks of Cranes and Grey Lag Geese. We saw a Great Spotted Cuckoo, a group of about 40 Little Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red-crested Pochard and copulating Black-winged Kites. The second day started wonderfully with a fine flock of thirty Great Bustard standing on the skyline of a field with the spectacular backdrop of the snow-clad Villuercas mountains and the castle of Trujillo. The area also yielded 70 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, another Great Spotted Cuckoo and two Merlin. We then headed to the Monfragüe National Park, seeing an overwintering Black Stork en route. At Monfragüe both Griffon and Black Vultures were finding weak thermals near the massive cliffs beside the River Tajo, we got great views of several Hawfinch and were joined at lunch by hungry, inquisitive Azure-winged Magpies. But pride of place must go the superb spectacle that we enjoyed in the winter sunshine, watching a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagle at close range, performing their aerial courtship, collecting nest material from the hillside and being mobbed by a pair of Ravens - until the tables were turned and the harried eagle divebombed the corvid! At one moment the pair were joined in the sky by a juvenile Imperial: three in sight at the same time.

Then today, for an hour or so I took myself down to the embanked pool at Casas del Hito, at the edge of the ricefields. The purpose of this was to try to find the Cackling Goose (also known as Richardson's Goose) which had been found earlier in the month and had been seen again last Sunday. It is the second record for Spain
(see http://www.rarebirdspain.net/arbsr000.htm#Brahut)
and for me a lifer as well. Luckily a good number (about 500) Grey Lag Geese were swimming on the pool (there were also several thousand more feeding on adjacent rice stubble). I got myself into a good position to scan the flock and the light was perfect. After about ten minutes, I found this attractive small goose. Very distinctive, shorter-necked than a Canada Goose, with a steep forehead, and small dark bill. The cheek patch seemed to have a slight buffish wash, indeed the whole plumage had a warm tone. After having some excellent views of it, I continued to check through the geese and found three Greater White-fronted Geese, a rare visitor which had not been previously reported this winter. Pleased with both these sightings I started my return home, stopping to look at a group of waders on a paddy: four Wood Sandpiper, with a further six on the next field. They must be overwintering birds, I guess, and very unusual.

I cannot think of a more complete or more fulfilling collection of birding activities, really making the very best of our brilliant winter bird watching.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Murmurings of spring


Although spring is not really deemed to have started until mid-February around here, there are the first clear signs of its forthcoming arrival. I did see some House Martins and Barn Swallows at the turn of the year, feeding alongside Crag Martins at the reservoir of Arrocampo, but these may have been overwintering individuals. But the Swallows that I have seen over the last few days, both over the garden as well as in nearby Trujillo are much more likely to be new arrivals. Our guests saw a Great Spotted Cuckoo yesterday, which is always one of the first species to return from Africa. In sheltered, sunny spots the first wild narcissus should be in flower and so should the almond trees (although the ones in our garden are always a little late). What clinched it for me happened last night. Patrick and I were looking at Mars through the telescope: very bright in the eastern sky. Whilst outside in the dark, we could hear the Nightjar-like churring of Natterjack Toads..how the evenings change from the relative silence of mid-winter to the chorus of courting in the spring is such a landmark.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Rain galore but still some good birds


Normally in mid-winter here we can expect some rain, but also long periods of settled fine weather which is a real joy to be out in - especially good for getting sightings of displaying eagles. This year however, we have had rain for almost every day over the last three weeks. I have just completed taking two guests, Peter and Vana, out birding for five days. We have had gale force winds, storms, torrential rain. Never before have I had to resort sitting in a steamed-up car to have lunch on one of these trips: we had to do it twice! Roads have been flooded, rivers are at full spate and the amount of standing water in the fields has been amazing.

For a guide under these conditions, one faces the prospects with some trepidation to say the least. Effective birding time is severely reduced and some birds will be very hard to find. Fortunately the local weather forecast was accurate enough for me to plan the itinerary to fit in with what the weather would throw at us: it is best to be in open-country (the steppes and ricefields) on the worst of the days, pick Monfragüe for raptors when there is a chance of some sunny spells, even if it will be very windy, and avoid woodland until the best day when the wind is low and it is not raining hard.

Overall it worked and even though we missed a few species, we did much better than I had expected. The good thing about guests from the UK is that they do not mind being out in the rain and we were all well kitted out. The highlights? Crane numbers at their mid-winter peak (we must have seen well over 10,000 in one day), the largest number of winter Grey Lag Geese that I can recall, three fine Ruddy Shelduck (origin unknown), good numbers of Little Bustard, groups of Great Bustard, big flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, excellent views of Bonelli's and Spanish Imperial Eagle, lots of Marsh and Hen Harriers, a stunning male Bluethroat, Purple Swamphen, masses of Lapwing and Golden Plover, some Curlew (which are very uncommon here), exquisite views of Firecrest, superb views of Black Wheatear, overwintering House Martin and Barn Swallow, two Otter sightings and, what is always a wonderful feature of wintering birding, the sheer numbers of small birds: Corn Bunting, Calandra Lark, Skylark, Chiffchaff, Spanish Sparrow. But for all of us what was probably the most memorable sighting occurred on New Year's Eve. There was a gale blowing and we had stopped at a small reservoir on the plains. A more exposed place you could hardly imagine. At the inlet of the reservoir there is a small patch of reedmace ("bulrush"), many with seed heads which were being tossed around in the wind. I heard the thin call of Penduline Tit, but assumed that under these conditions, anything more than a fleeting glimpse would be out of the question. It flew from close by and dropped into the vegetation. That's our view, I thought, but still checked the area carefully. Unbelievably, this remarkable little bird was relocated at the top of a swaying seed head, happily feeding away. What is more we got our telescopes onto it and were able to enjoy fabulous views. It then moved to another seed head, we found it again in the 'scopes amd then realised that on an adjacent plant there was a second Penduline Tit. They are great birds to see at the best of times, but under these conditions, these views are some which I will never forget.