Thursday, 20 December 2012
I had settled down comfortably: camp chair, warm clothing, the trunk of the great encina (Holm Oak) behind me, its evergreen canopy above, hiding me from view. I was sitting in the dehesa at the end of the afternoon, with a view of the small Tozo reservoir in front of me. My aim was to be as well-hidden as possible, the reason: to watch and hopefully count the Common Cranes coming to roost at this small water body, surrounded by the dehesa of encina, providing the acorns which the wintering cranes are sharing with the free-range Iberian pigs. One of my activities in winter is to participate in surveys and counts of birds. There are surveys too in the spring, but with our birding holiday business at its peak at that time of the year, it is usually difficult to commit time to volunteer for survey work as well. Winter is different and it feels good to be part of a band of like-minded birders, gathering information which is then pooled, analysed and contributes to our wider understanding. That day too, others were out at viewpoints to count the cranes coming into the many roosts scattered across Extremadura.
Some places are easier to survey than others. In the rice-growing areas where most of the wintering cranes occur, the lines of calling cranes can be watched approaching at a distance across the wide open skyscape. I was at a much smaller roost, sitting amongst trees because there was no accessible high ground to provide a panorama. My skyscape was gaps in the canopy. I could hear the cranes bugling in surrounding feeding areas and perhaps half a dozen were in sight between the trees near the reservoir. There were parties of Mallard and Teal on the little reservoir. Two Green Sandpipers and a Greenshank moved along the water's edge, whilst a Great White Egret flew down from a Holm Oak to the water.
Just as it was getting dusk, there was some movement as a party of cranes flew in, gliding between the trees and settled on the pasture close to the water. There they stood. A few minutes later another party joined them, coming in from a different direction. Then another. As I scanned across my view I became suddenly aware of a different movement. In the falling light, the tall grey shapes of cranes, with their wonderful dark bustles of dropping feathers, were approaching...not flying, but slowly striding in, walking towards the roosting area with a deliberate gait. It was quite magical, like watching mystical fairytale creatures emerging from the gloom between the trees and all heading in the same direction. I sat still and watched, they were completely oblivious to my presence. As they gathered I tried to count them in the rapidly diminishing light. More and more were coming in. An exact count was going to be impossible, so I satisfied myself with an estimate of 300 birds, give or take 20. As I crept away to across the fields, back to the car, the cranes had formed a close pack and the ducks were leaving the water to graze, under the safety of darkness, between the trees.
The following day I was counting birds for two hours along the lanes where we live on the Los Lagares hills. This is for a different survey for the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife) to monitor trends in bird populations. My count joins the efforts of many others across Spain and over the years changes in bird populations can be noted. It was a lovely morning's walk, still and mild. There was even some bird song, from Chiffchaffs and the weak, faltering "song" of Hawfinch. My total on the walk was 720 individual birds seen of 37 species in two hours through olive groves and dehesa. I will repeat the exercise in January and then see how the combined total compares with previous winters. As well as the survey work, winter remains also a fabulous time for watching birds here. One lucky observer saw and photographed a White-tailed Eagle not far from here and there have also been recent records of other local rarities like Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-knobbed Coot and Pink-footed Goose. News of unusual sightings can be found on the blog of our local birding group: http://birds-extremadura.blogspot.com
News has been coming in from other crane counts across Extremadura. From the so-called Central Zone (which is largely irrigated land for rice and maize crops) a staggering total of over 61,000 cranes were counted going into the various roosts there. The overall figure for Extremadura has not yet been compiled for this year. My 300 or so at the Tozo reservoir roost may have been just a tiny percentage of the whole, but there was something very special in watching in the twilight these almost phantasmagorical figures of stately cranes drawn, as if by magnetism, through the wood pasture to their communal roost.
Sunday, 25 November 2012
When I set out alone to go birding, perhaps checking out a regular haunt, exploring somewhere new or carrying out a survery or census, I am motivated partly by the sense of joy of being out in the countryside, but deep down, fundamentally, by the unknown, not knowing what will be the highlights or surprises of the day. I was thinking about this whilst undertaking what at first might appear rather routine, even mundane. I had dug a part of the vegetable garden, and belatedly (because of the combination of my long absence in South Sudan, guiding commitments and rain) was sowing broad beans and planting garlic. As I placed a clove of garlic into the soil I realised like gardeners and farmers everywhere, I could not predict with full certainty, the outcome of this task. What next year's yield will be like remains largely out of my control. I had prepared the ground, I can try to weed regularly along the row, but how well the garlic would do would depend on rain and temperature, as well as many other factors. This year the crop was modest, the cloves not particularly large, but good enough to provide me with sets for planting and for the needs of the kitchen until next year's harvest. One couldn't ask for more than that. Planting garlic also gave me the company of singing Cetti's Warblers, Hawfnches, a group of five Red Kites overhead, Griffon and Black Vultures, as well as a party of Common Crane....the birding is great in the garden, indeed this week the species list rose to 126 with a photo (see below) sent to me by John Hawkins of a Sedge Warbler he had seen in September whilst he busied himself photographing Hawfinches.
Last week too we had a visit by Richard Allen and his son Jack, a long weekend to get a taster of winter birding here, with plenty of great experiences including masses of cranes, Black Wheatear and Goshawk in Monfragüe. Richard wrote about their visit in his blog, accompanied some of his superb sketches:
I confess that I get a great sense of anticipation too when our guests head out in the morning birding on their own, equipped with their own homework supplemented with any tips I can give them. I look forward eagerly to their return at the end of the day for their news. Who would have thought yesterday that Chris and Lynda would have watched a family of three Greater Flamingoes (rare birds here, that I have seen on fewer than a handful of times) circle in to the Sierra Brava reservoir and settle to swim amongst the roosting Black-headed Gulls.
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
As a nature guide, there are many things I have absolutely no control over. I cannot guarantee that I will find every bird that my clients ask for - although everyday, without fail, has its rewards and surprises. And I cannot control the weather. Out with a wonderful group for a week, we had just endured our second day of heavy and quite persistent rain. We were seeing great birds and the folk were in high spirits, but always as a guide I want to do my very best and the weather was creating a tough challenge for me. We popped into a favourite bar of mine for a break and as the group enjoyed the excellent coffee that these little village bars unfailingly provide, I chatted to the owner of the bar. "Lots of rain" I said and she replied: "Yes, and doesn't the countryside look wonderful!". She was absolutely right. In my concerns about making the most of our days in the field, I had blinkered myself to the fact that all of us who live here had been praying for rain like this for months. And yes indeed, the landscape is looking gorgeous at the moment. The plains and dehesas are emerald green, there are pools of water everywhere. When the sun is out, these glisten like jewels. There are carpets of yellow crucifers in flower, as well as autumn bulbs. It has been a wonderfully wet and, as a result, a beautiful autumn.
And the birds have been magnificent too. Despite their slow arrival, the Common Cranes are now here in strength (all the photos in this blog belong to Patrick Hayes who was here in early November). Their bugling calls once again a constant part of the landscape itself.
Along the ditches in the ricefields, the exotic little finch, the Red Avadavat is nesting and the male is in full breeding pluamge - a sight that people who come here just in the spring will never see.
The birds of the steppes stand out against the lush green sward: richly coloured Great Bustards, earthy coloured Black-bellied Sandgrouse and, so typical of the winter, the masses of smaller birds. This autumn there seem to be more Common Starlings, Redwings and Siskins have I have ever encountered before here. We stood marvelling at the sight of a flock of a hundred Little Bustard, appearing and disappearing above us against a blue sky, as they turned as one, pale then dark, sideways on and then banking.
Common Chiffchaffs are everywhere and Patrick Hayes even got a picture of a male Brambling in our garden (a first ever), though a raindrop-covered bedroom window.
The spectacle of the wintering passerines is matched by those raptors attracted by them: we are getting good numbers of Merlin, Sparrowhawk and Hen Harrier as well this autumn. The Black-winged Kite is more obvious too. With the group we watched one soaring beside a Red Kite and then being mobbed by a Common Kestrel, practically identical in size. Around us at that moment were a flock of about 50 Little Stints, some Kentish Plovers, a Ruff, groups of Tree Sparrows and the ever-present cranes. We felt spoilt for choice of where to look.
Extremadura has received a blessing this autumn with the rain that has arrived: this is what we have all been waiting for. At a time of economic crisis in Spain, it has been a gift for us all.
Saturday, 27 October 2012
This is shaping up to be a good autumn as far as the weather is concerned here in Extremadura, with plenty of rain so far this month. The landscape is looking magnificently green. The gorgeous little bulb, Narcissus serotinus is in flower on the plains, putting forward a wonderful, if ephemeral, show. At last the Common Cranes are arriving too, rather later than usual this year. Four days ago I visit the crane reserve at Moheda Alta, where there were 77 (yes, I counted them all) Common Cranes feeding on the rice stubble fields, and just a few hours later that number had increased to over 300 as parties arrived through the morning.
During the week I picked up my copy of the study published by the Spanish Ornithological Society (Garrido, J. R., Molina, B. & Del Morel, J. C. (Eds) 2012. Las garzas en España, población reproductora e invernante en 2010-2011 y método de censo. SEO/BirdLife. Madrid) on the census of breeding and wintering herons and egrets that took place in 2010 and 2011. It is fascinating reading. In the popular imagination, Extremadura is not famous as a region of wetlands in Spain, yet it comes in second place (after Andalucia) in terms of importance for wintering herons and egrets and third in terms of breeding pairs and number of colonies. Of course, Extremadura has an extensive zone of irrigated land, the second largest rice-growing area in Spain, many reservoirs and is crossed by two of the peninsula's largest rivers, the Tajo (Tagus) and Guadiana. The latter especially is important for breeding herons with its belts of fringing vegetation and wooded islands. The popular birding spot of Arrocampo is entirely man-made: a reservoir built to provide cooling water for the nuclear power station at Almaráz. Its constant water-level and reedbeds make it excellent for breeding herons and egrets, with no fewer than nine species nesting this year, including Extremadura's first Great Bitterns.
As a family, the distribution of many of these species has been increasing across Europe. Little Egrets are now common in many parts of Britain, whereas thirty years ago they were real rarities, In Spain, the Great White Egret (see John Hawkin's photo at top of post) first bred in 1997 in the Ebro Delta, spreading across from eastern Europe. Although according to this recent census the population is still small (53 pairs) it is now nesting in five regions of Spain, including Extremadura where there were two pairs at Arrocampo. However, there were almost 1,500 counted during the winter 2010/11 and indeed one can expect to see the species on almost every visit to lowland rivers, rice cultivations and reservoirs with emergent vegetation. Many of these are wintering birds from central Europe, but each spring more and more remain, initially as non-breeding stayers-on....the species was present in the spring in Arrocampo for several years before breeding was proven. So in all likelihood, the breeding population is likely to increase significantly.
Most of the species surveyed have shown increases in Spain, especially Black-crowned Night Heron (from 1,313 pairs in 1986 to over 5,300 pairs in 2011), Squacco Heron (from 200 pairs in 1980 to about 2,000 pairs in 2011), Grey Heron (168 pairs in 1950 to more than 7,000 pairs in 2011) and Purple Heron (from about 2,000 pairs in the years 1997-2003 to more than 5,000 pairs today). There have also been recent increases in Spoonbill, Great Bittern and Glossy Ibis populations. The only declines have been with Little Egret (with a small drop over the last ten years) and Cattle Egret, with a fall from 70,000 pairs in 1989 to 40,000 in 2011. The latter was a species that had expanded greatly during the last century and whose population also fluctuates locally depending on the suitability of breeding conditions. Researchers have suggested that such species that have shown a rapid expansion will sometimes then show a decline population as the population consolidates and then stabilises. We shall see.
It is satisfying to see the overall results of surveys in which one had taken a small part (I did counts of some of the winetr roosts and breeding colonies). I also see a good match between what emerges from this national census and my own experience over the last few years in Extremadura. Not only are there more Great White Egrets, but we also have more nesting Spoonbills, and I am recordng more wintering Little Bitterns, Squacco Herons and Glossy Ibis than I used to. There must be a range of reasons for the general increases shown: Cattle Egrets make great use of rubbish tips, there has been an increase in the area of land now flooded for rice, the waterways are generally cleaner, introduced fish and other species like American crayfish may be increasing the food supply, and egrets were susceptible to severe persecution in the past, and now are benefiting from protection.
Friday, 19 October 2012
I had been away for over six weeks, indeed the longest absence from my beloved Extremadura for eight years. When I left summer was still upon us, with the landscape looking tired, dry and withered. The Red-rumped Swallows nesting by the kitchen door had their second brood of chicks noisily chattering away within their beautifully built nest. Coming back earlier this week, the first thing that struck me was how the landscape had become an emerald green. This is how we always hope it should look like by mid-October and is testimony to the autumn rains. For us, in many ways, autumn feels like a second spring, a changing of the guard as far as the birds are concerned, but also a transformation of the colour of the fields and plains. The Red-rumped Swallows had left just a few days before I returned, but as soon as I arrived home, I heard Robins calling. They are winter visitors to our garden and their ticking notes and winter song will be with us now right through to spring.
I headed out to nearby plains today, just for a couple of hours, squeezed between shopping and collecting Patrick from school. It is always a pleasure after a long absence to give one's local patch a quick check, getting a feel again of what is around. At my first stop a party of perhaps sixty Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were feeding unconcernedly in the middle of a field by the road. This resident species was joined in the field by hordes of Lapwings and even more Meadow Pipits, both wintering birds from central and northern Europe. A little bit further on a rather haughty group of eight Great Bustards, looking perhaps slightly bedraggled after yesterday's nonstop rain, stood close to the road. Wonderful views.
I headed out to another area and came across one of the sights I had been looking for. Glorious though they are in the spring, with the male standing out when displaying with its distinctive call and little jump, there is something very special about wintering flocks of Little Bustard. This is a species in big decline and in the spring one can struggle sometimes to find more than a handfull of displaying males nowadays. Yet here were over a hundred birds in flight, turning white and then dark as they twisted in unison against the sky. Not by any means a big flock by winters' standards, but a joy nevertheless, as they dropped to the ground. There they become remarkably difficult to see. As you can see in the photo by John Hawkins at the top of the post, they prefer to stand in places where there is tall dead vegetation such as thistles and grasses left over from the spring. The males have lost their bold black and white neck plumage and, like the females, blend in cryptically with only their white underparts catching the low winter sunshine. There had been over a hundred birds in flight, but I was hard pressed to find more than twenty or so on the ground.
As I drove along a fine male Hen Harrier flew up from a fence post and quartered the field, and just a few minutes further on, a second male was cruising low behind a stone wall, ready to ambush small birds. And small birds there were many. As well as the resident Calandra Larks, Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows, all in large flocks, there were a few late summer migrants still: a Common Whitethroat, Northern Wheatear and a Whinchat. But they were vastly outnunbered by wintering Meadow Pipits (see the photo). The abundance of these pipits provides a reliable food source for raptors like the Hen Harrier, but especially the Merlin. And to cap it all my brief midday visit to the plains was made complete by a magnificent view of a female Merlin, sitting on a cowpat in a field, close to the road. I guess it must have eaten earlier that day, because it stayed put as I stopped, wound down the window and watched it. And there it remained as I headed back to collect Patrick from school.
Saturday, 15 September 2012
I suppose my fascination with rivers started as a small boy, thanks to the proximity to home of a small tributary of the Thames, the River Roding. So close infact, that by scrambling through a hole that I had made in the hedge at the bottom of the garden, I could emerge beside a muddy bank and onto a little path that followed the meandering river upstream. We lived in the small village of Abridge in Essex, just 20 kilometres from Hyde Park in London, on two London Transport bus routes and close to the Central Line of the Underground, but still the village felt part of rural Essex. The very name Abridge, drew attention to its relationship, our relationship, to the river. From the house we could look over water meadows which once or twice in the winter would flood. Waking up we would look across a vast shallow lake, with dozens of Black-headed Gulls apparently aimlessly drifting about as they swam on the surface. But it was the river which was the magnet for me. A place for me to wander alone to find Water Voles, Kingfishers, Grey Herons, Reed Buntings and Sedge Warblers. I would sit beside deep pools and watch chub drift through the weeds, or minnows in the shallows.
As a teenager, now living in South Wales, my river was the River Usk, a salmon river. My birding walks were divided between the oak woods and moorland of the Black Mountains or following the banks of the Usk, a haunt of Dippers and Grey Wagtails. Finding the traces of ancient ox-bow lakes, which had become marshy refuges with alder trees, I came across wintering Water Rail and sometimes amongst the Common Snipe, the enigmatic Jack Snipe.
These rivers were great for birds and other wildlife because they represented a narrow ribbon of habitat richness, a gallery, a transition of aquatic to emergent vegetation and then the fringe of unfarmed land between the river bank and the fields. Though narrow it extended practically unbroken along the length of the river, a wildlife corridor for resident and migrant species alike. It was in such narrow belts of riverine vegetation, that I later spent three summers studying Marsh Warblers in Worcestershire, along the River Avon and its tributaries.
As an adolescent I had read Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha. Siddhartha was the son of a Brahmin who found enlightenment thanks to a ferryman Vasudeva, who showed Siddhartha how to listen to and learn from the messages that the great river divulged. It somehow captured the magic that rivers have, the flow, the passage of water to the sea. I thought about that when I stood for the first time upstream of the Victoria Falls, watching the calm of the waters of the Zambezi just minutes before that same water would form part of Mosi-oa-Tunya "the Cloud that Thunders". I had many meditative moments thinking of Siddhartha, when I lived on the banks of the River Amazon in Colombia for three years, watching the sun setting over the distant Peruvian shoreline, with the towering afternoon storm clouds starting to disperse above the seemingly endless tract of rainforest.
In Extremadura, there is one special river above all for me. It rises in the wonderful Villuercas mountains, now declared a Geological Park for its ancient rocks and Appalachian relief, and runs west across the middle of Extremadura before joining the River Tajo (Tagus), the longest river in the Iberian peninsular. It is a river that one crosses on any road heading north-south and thus it becomes a familar feature for the visitor. It is the River Almonte. What makes the Almonte so special is that it is the last river of any length in Extremadura without a dam. One can enjoy it in its natural state as its cuts through the dehesa, in a deep incised valley, with rocky outcrops supporting breeding Bonelli's Eagles, Egyptian Vultures and Black Storks. In the photo above (from the photo library of the Junta de Extremadura), one can see the river just downstream from bridge where the road between Trujillo and Plasencia crosses the Almonte, at an ancient crossing site used by drovers since medieval times.
At the moment I am far from Extremadura, in Juba (capital of South Sudan) to be precise, but thinking of rivers because today I took my first short break (a couple of hours) from work in over a fortnight. I sat under the shade of a mango tree beside the River Nile and simply watched, as I have done since childhood, the water passing slowly by, this vast volume of water powered by gravity. Branches and piles of vegetation passed by, whilst whisling duck and herons flew across the water. How long would that water's journey take, through the vast Sudd Swamp, then as a blue ribbon through the desert of Sudan, the Aswan dam and then through a gradually widening strip of cultivation in Egypt before being part of the Mediterranean Sea. I saw the river as it was, both a constant traveller and a physical connection, an artery on a continental scale. It is no wonder that rivers are thought of by many as sacred, they always have been for me.
Wednesday, 29 August 2012
As August ends we always have the sensation of a turning point. We have just returned from our annual visit to Britain, taking part in the magnificent British Birdfair and staying on for a few days with my parents in North Norfolk. The British Birdfair is not just easily the best place to catch up with my old friends and colleagues, spanning dare I say well over thirty years, but also a shop window for Extremadura. Over the three days of the fair, we speak to hundreds of people and almost immediately emails start coming in as people start to take in what they have heard and start planning their next holiday. Our booking schedules start getting filled as we impart advice on the best time to come to meet the expectations and dreams of those who we hope will soak in the pleasure of birding in Extremadura as many have done before them. A few days then to relax on the Norfolk coast, meeting old birding friends again, this time in the field itself and renewing aquaintance with species that hardly if ever find their way to my regular birding haunts in Extremadura.
So it is easy to start thinking well ahead and as a wonderful counterpoint I was delighted to receive copies of many photos taken by one of our guests this spring. Raymond de Smet first visited us last September and found on his last morning here Extremadura's second only Cream-coloured Courser. This spring he spent about two weeks here in May. Among the many pictures he sent, I am illustrating this blog with just a tiny selection. Each one brings back memories of his wonderful enthusiasm on returning to our house in the evening and sharing with us the highlights of the day. He took many photos of Rollers and I particularly like the one at the top of the post as it shows its intense and vivid colours on the wing. He tends to specialise on birds in flight and here we can see photos of Great Spotted Cuckoo (another focus of his on the visit) and Montagu's Harrier.
I think this Alpine Swift is superb,
taken from the Roman Bridge in Mérida and showing clearly that it is carrying in its mouth a ball of insects that it has collected on the wing and which it is about to feed to its young in a nest situated under one of the bridge's ancient arches. It will dive under the arch and up to the nest at breakneck speed.
His evening shot of the square of Trujillo will evoke happy memories of those who have combined culture and birding, taking in the historic site whilst watching the parties of screaming swifts dash around the towers of the fortified palaces or the storks bill-clacking from their lofty nests. This last photo of White Storks nesting on a tree is particularly poignant. One of the over-riding memories of this spring was the drought, which led to a very poor breeding season for many species. White Storks were very badly hit with hardly any pairs managing to raise young to fledging. But they are long-lived birds and will have good years as well as bad, and they will be back on their nests by January when the bill-clacking will again be heard around Trujillo's square, as doubtless it has been ever since the churches and towers were built.
I head off tomorrow for six weeks working for Save the Children in South Sudan.
Saturday, 11 August 2012
Another heatwave, fiercer than before with temperatures now over 40 degrees in the shade by our kitchen door for most of the afternoon and evening. There is a seemingly still mood everywhere. People are indoors for most of the day, getting work done outside first thing in the morning and taking the evening walk (el paseo) with neighbours. I have completed another annual tasks, always in my August to-do list, chopping off the shoots from the bases of the olive tree trunks. Over the late spring these have sprouted to form first a stubble and then by August a dense mass of vertical shoots. Over the last couple of mornings, using a small hatchet, I've cleaned the bases of the trees and there are now sheep in the paddock to nibble off the little shoots. It is a satisfying, pleasing task, leaving the broad bases of the trees clean, their wonderfully gnarled outline now defined and precise. What wonderful old specimens they are, with numerous holes and niches, one having provided a nest site for a pair of Hoopoes every year since we have been here, and who knows for how many years beforehand. A traditional site indeed.
In the garden, the source of drinking water becomes ever more important for the birds, most delightfully the parties of Long-tailed, sometimes perhaps a dozen or so, who confidingly come to drink and bathe whilst we are just a few feet away.
The cypress trees have a fine crop of green cones at the moment, on which Hawfinches are gorging themselves. And just to show that migration is also underway, three Green Sandpipers flew over, high above the house, this morning as I sat outside with a cup of tea.
But perhaps the most evocative at this time of the year and the bands of Bee-eaters that drift over (See the photo at the top of the post - all of today's pictures were taken by John Hawkins). They have finished breeding now and these parties are a mixture of adults and juvenile birds, feeding just prior to their journey to Africa. Just as in spring when the very first Bee-eaters to arrive herald themselves by their fluty "pprrruit" calls and appear at great height, generally heading north, these bands in August announce their appearance vocally. But unlike in the spring, this time the flocks of twenty or thirty birds are much lower and they lack the directional urgency of the first arrivals. Now they appear almost lazy, with a flowing, buoyant, drifting flight, almost as if they were allowing themselves to be carried by the faintest of summer breezes. I enjoy this sight as much as I can, grateful that their calls had me looking out for them and knowing that within just a few days they will have gone.
Friday, 27 July 2012
Late July and dawn down on the rice fields. The crop is standing deep and green, covering practically all the fields around me. Already there are teams of people working in the fields, pulling out weeds and a couple of tractors are out there as well. At first glance the area seems almost birdless, apart from a few White Stork standing on the banks separating the fields. A distant Marsh Harrier is quartering the ditches. There are parties of the tiny finches, the Red Avadavats, with the males now in full breeding plumage: bright red with white spots, hence their delightful Danish name: the Strawberry Finch. Originally from India, they are quite at home in the ditches beside the paddies and have their breeding season in the autumn.
I turn up a little track and there, resting in front of me, is the biggest flock of Collared Pratincoles I have ever seen here. I quickly estimate 250 birds and when I later go through the photo (below) I count 262...not bad!
The group was a mix of adults and the paler juveniles, a post-breeding flock. Amongst them was a juvenile Gull-billed Tern, whose parent was returning every few minutes with a morsel of food and, indeed, just makes it into this photo. Pratincoles are rather bizarre looking birds. They are grouped into the waders, but when on the ground, look a bit like small terns, although generally have a very hunched appearance, and then totally transform in flight (see John Hawkins' photo at the top of the post). The sky is their element with long, slender wings, forked tails and striking white rump. They are tremendously aerobatic, gliding and ptching, diving and swooping, catching insects like swallows.
I see my first pratincoles of the year in late March when they will be hawking insects over the fields, especially within easy reach of likely nesting places. Here in Extremadura they breed on small islands on reservoirs as well as on bare stony fields left fallow in otherwise irrigated areas of rice and maize. The total breeding population here is estimated to be between 700 and 1000 pairs, varying a lot each year depending on the availability of suitable conditions. By July, they start to form post-breeding flocks. Overall I estimated that there were well over 300 visible in the area where I stood, counting the group on the track and other small parties nearby. However, the largest flock ever seen in Extremadura was about 800 in 2005, not far from where I was visiting, also in July. They tend to leave early, heading south for Africa by mid-August. Indeed, almost surreptitiously, the autumn arrivals and departures are already underway. As I watched the pratincoles, two Common Snipe were disturbed by some of the farm workers and flew up from the wet field. This was a very early arrival date for this winter visitor here, but other wintering waders like Lapwing and Green Sandpiper have been arriving for several weeks now and soon the first passerine migrants will start to appear in the garden as well....quite unlike the arrival of spring which is heralded by colour and song, there is almost a lazy drift into autumn, quite befitting the languid warmth of a summer afternoon.
Posted by Martin and Claudia Kelsey at Casa Rural El Recuerdo at 17:57
Thursday, 19 July 2012
What struck me almost immediately was the number of rabbits. We do not see many in Extremadura, but here I was seeing more rabbits in one morning than I would in more than a whole month at home. This was a good sign, because our quest on this mid-July expedition was a rabbit-specialist, the Iberian Lynx. Claudia, Patrick and I, along with our friends Anthea and John Hawkins (who took the attached photos of Lynx here) and David Hosking, had ventured outside Extremadura to spend four days in the Sierra Morena, near the Andalucian town of Andújar.
The hilly terrain was covered by holm oak dominated dehesa, open woodland providing grazing. There were stone pines dotted around and exposed, weathered granite boulders, reminding me of the berrocal habitat around our home town of Trujillo. The Jándula river ran through the landscape, with two dams creating narrow, steep-sided reservoirs. Most of the landscape in view was either Natural Park or large hunting estates.
This refuge for the Iberian Lynx has attracted visitors and information was readily available to recommend particular viewpoints to watch from. Everyone though repeats the same message: lynx sightings depend on a combination of equal doses of considerable patience and lots of luck! We were trying our luck in the height of summer, with afternoon temperatures in the high thirties and most mammal activity being crepuscular or noctural at this time of year. Our strategy was clear. We had to be out in the first two or three hours of daylight and for a similar period in the evening. We could afford to rest during the hottest part of the day, although Golden Orioles and Azure-winged Magpies feeding on pears in the Los Pinos hotel garden (http://www.lospinos.es/) provided a suitable distraction for those who did not want to have a siesta!
The first two mornings we spent high on a ridge-top, affording excellent views across a valley, criss-crossed by tracks. It was an area where many people had seen lynx. But after a total of six hours there we had drawn a blank, although there were plenty of rabbits, good numbers of deer as well as a family of Wild Boar. Green Woodpeckers were also very common and we had sightings of White-rumped Swift as well as a Spanish Imperial Eagle carrying a Wood Pigeon in its talons. The evening light had been better by the Jándula river, where for two evenings we had also no luck as far as lynx was concerned, but White-rumped Swifts were watched coming to drink and an Otter was present.
It was driving down to the river that, when least expected, we had our very first encounter with the Iberian Lynx. Just a kilometre from the hotel at 8 pm, still a good two hours before dusk, a lynx crossed the road in front of us and slowly walked up a little path from where it inaudibly called out to its two kittens. For a brief moment we could watch from just a few metres away a female with her two young. She turned to look at us and then led her family away to cover. The experience lasted just a few seconds, but there in front of us had been the world's rarest cat with a promise of future: her two youngsters. Despite driving along that stretch of road several times afterwards, we were never to see her again.
We decided to switch strategy and focus on the vicinity of the Jándula river. It was there the following morning we had another glimpse of a lynx. After 90 minutes of waiting, we watched an adult slowly making its way down a track, just thirty minutes after a rather noisy party of fisherman, complete with a small dog, had walked up the same path. The views were interrupted by trees, but we could take in its distinctive shape. The legs are long (the hind legs longer than the front legs), the body also long and held horizontally, the short, stubby tail stuck upwards and the rather angular looking head with tufted ears pointing upwards and its pronounced "beard". It left the path and disappeared within a clump of trees, startling a group of Red Deer which ran off in a panic - a reminder that they have also been known to take young deer calves. We were starting to consider ourselves lucky now: two sightings within the space of twelve hours.
The following morning there we were again, by the river. We had split into two groups with walkie-talkie contact. David called me just after 8 am with the news that a lynx was approaching from below us. Within seconds we were watching one make its way slowly across the bridge spanning the river. Now we could watch it at length and take in its markings. Another name for the Iberian Lynx is the Pardel Lynx (the scientific name is Lynx pardinus), meaning leopard-spotted and indeed this animal was heavily marked with over the whole body. It is one of the ways of distinguising this species from the somewhat larger Northern Lynx. After crossing the bridge it sat for a period on a boulder, looking sleek and long-bodied, with its back to us. It then moved from the rock and my attention was drawn to movement nearby. Another lynx appeared, this time perhaps a bit bigger, and certainly less strongly marked and with an overall more orange tone to its fur. This naimal then crossed the bridge towards us and then slunk off to hide amongst the big boulders close to the river.
During the day in the summer this mixture of boulders and bushes provides many places for the lynxes to rest, as well as good spots to ambush rabbits feeding nearby. A lynx needs to eat on average a rabbit a day and it was the collapse of the rabbit population in Spain caused by the arrival of myxomatosis in the 1950s and hemorrhagic pneumonia in the 1980s that was one of the main factors in the disappearance of Iberian Lynx over much of its former ranges, coupled with habitat fragmentation. As populations became small and isolated, so they became further vulnerable to other factors such as road mortalities. The last population of Iberian Lynx in Extremadura probably died out in the 1990s. By 2002 a census showed that the total population of Iberian Lynx had fallen to about 160 individuals with breeding only taking place in two areas (both in Andalucia): the Coto Doñana and the Sierra Morena (the latter being the stronghold). The species had now gained the ignominius status of being Critically Endangered and the rarest cat in the world. Thankfully governments and conservationists took action. With a conservation plan in place, there have been actions on various fronts. Rabbit populations have been boosted by careful habitat management and repopulations, lynx conservation is winning support from local landowners and others and captive breeding centres have been established to build up numbers for reintroductions elsewhere. One of these centres is in Extremadura and in March this year two lynx kittens were born. Once again young lynx are walking on Extremaduran soil, albeit in a large compound and one day the species will be back in the wild here. Overall the wild population of Iberian Lynx is now thought to have risen to over 300 individuals in Andalucia.
Looking at this rare and beautiful creature sitting in the shade or walking with its long strides in the dappled woodland shade, I wondered if I would ever have a sighting like this in Extremadura. It was reassuring to know that many dedicated people are working to bring back the Pardel Lynx to places where just a few years ago it was thought have been lost for ever.
Thursday, 28 June 2012
For the best part of a week a southerly airflow has brought in the highest temperatures of the year so far. We live nestled beside a gentle hill, surrounded by trees in an area locally acknowledged as having its own moderate microclimate, always a few degrees cooler than the town of Trujillo, just a few kilometres away. That being said, the mercury in the thermometer in the shade just outside the kitchen door has been hitting 38 degrees Celsius most afternoons over the last few days. With Patrick's school term now finished, we are now in full summer mode!
In more exposed areas, the temperature has been reaching 40 Celsius and what many people do not realize, the temperature here hits the highest point for the day in the summer at about 6 or 7 pm. The early morning (sunrise here is just before 7 am at the moment) offers perfect conditions to be out, but inexorably the heat builds up. By early afternoon one is driven indoors. This is when we are glad of the local vernacular architecture. Thick walls and small windows keep the house cool indoors, especially by making sure that all the doors and windows are closed, with shutters closed too..anything to keep the hot air out. Lunch and then the finest of Spanish traditions, the siesta. The evening then offers a small respite. With the sun setting at about 10pm, there is nothing better than having a late evening meal at dusk outdoors.
The heatwave affects the birds as well, of course. We keep a small puddle of water in the footbath of the shower beside the swimming pool and birds appear almost to queue up to drink and bathe: Nightingales, Azure-winged Magpies, Woodchat Shrikes, Hawfinches...I took guests from the Unitied States out birding yesterday and in the Monfragüe National Park we stood just a few feet away from fresh water coming from a spring which attracted family parties of Blue and Long-tailed Tits, Chaffinches, Hawfinches and Subalpine Warblers.
Another feature of the time of the year, of course, is the appearance of many young birds. The photo above shows a Lesser Kestrel chick which was brought to us. It was found on the road, beside its dead sibling. We kept it overnight, giving it water and some tinned catfood, until the following day when it was collected by the local Animal Rescue officer. He told us that it was the fourth Lesser Kestrel nestling that he had picked-up and thought the heat was causing some to fall out of their nests prematurely. If one remembers that most are nesting under terracota roof tiles, it is easy to imagine how hot it could be getting for these young birds.
The Nightingales that featured in my last posting fledged and are still being fed by their parents in the garden. I mentioned in that posting how they had nested just feet away from the water tank in the vegetable garden and it was just by chance how I discovered the nest. Equally, we were surprised this week to discover that Mallard had nested in the garden too! Once or twice over the last few weeks I had seen a female Mallard in the vicinity of our tiny pond, but a few days ago as I was walking back through the garden to the house, there was the duck again, this time with its ducklings. Two, in their panic when they saw me, got tangled up in some dead thistles, so I rescued them and here they are:
Happily they were quickly reunited with Mum and are still happily sheltering in our pond.
But perhaps the memorable and special sighting happened yesterday. With our American guests, I was standing in Monfragüe National Park at the site where Spanish Imperial Eagles have nested close to the river. As we arrived the pair of adults were soaring high overhead. A friend of mine had told me that the last time he was there, just a few days ago, the eaglet was fully plumaged and standing tall on the nest. I took a look at the nest but there was no sign of the youngster. A few minutes later, we watched it fly across the river, its juvenile plumage with not a single worn or damaged feather, looking immaculate, indicated that this was a bird that had only just left the nest. It drifted out of view. Later, we walked back to the car when a movement drew our attention. There on the river bank, stood the recently fledged eagle. It hopped down to the water's edge to drink. Everything about it spoke of newness: not just its pristine feathers, but even its feet and the yellow gape of the bill, were bright and clean, spotless, untarnished. A bird setting out shortly to become independent. Who knows what fortunes lay ahead for it. All we could do was to to enjoy and feel priviledged to witness the scene, and thank the baking summer heat for encouraging this special bird to come down to quench its thirst, providing us with one of those memories that one knew instinctively would remain with one forever.
Wednesday, 13 June 2012
The brambles were starting to spread out from the shade of the quince tree towards the row of onions in our small vegetable garden, so armed with pruning shears I set out to tidy them up. A distinctive high pitched alarm call was coming from a few metres away, a Nightingale. I had heard this on previous days on my routine visits to tend the vegetables. As I moved the brambles away, a slight movement caught my eye. I looked more closely and to my astonishment there was a neat grassy cup on the ground, amongst dead leaves, tilted slightly and containg four tiny naked, blind nestlings. It was the first time I had seen a Nightingales's nest and what was more surprising was it was no more than a couple of metres from the water tank, the focus of my daily visits since the vegetables now need watering every day. Unseen by me, the Nightingales had built the nest, laid a clutch and sat and incubated them. The brambles had provided excellent cover.
I gathered the cut bramble and placed it carefully to act as a barrier near the nest in a hope that it would remain relatively concealed. Nestlings on ground nests are very vulnerable. There are cats in the village, although the vegetable plot is fenced and our dog, Moro, enjoys nothing more than chasing cats, so perhaps the risk from them might be less. However, there are other mammalian predators around such as Stone Martens, as well as snakes and Azure-winged Magpies.
Each day on my trips down to the vegetables I would take a careful but quick look, from as far as way as possible to check on progress. Always the attentive Nightingale adult would be calling to warn the nestlings of my presence. On 10th June we took the photo at the top of this posting, where you can see that the four chicks are now well feathered with eyes open. During the night of the 11th, I heard the Nightingale alarm calls frequently and when I took a quick look at the nest first thing yesterday (12th June) it was empty. I wondered if the young had successfully fledged or had been predated. The nest looked neat and undamaged and I could still hear alarm calls nearby. Surely the parents would not be giving these had the young been taken. My answer came just a few hours later when I saw one of the adults carrying food in its bill and nearby a recently fledged chick fluttering for cover. I was delighted that the chicks had made it to fledging despite my accidental disturbance to their cover. Since then the adults have been busy collecting food, sometimes from close to our doorstep and I hear their warning calls in different places as presumably the brood is now dispersing a bit from the nesting site.
Meanwhile, the subjects of the previous post, the Red-rumped Swallows must be incubating now and are charming us with their confiding behaviour. They fly into the house a lot, circling around before flying out again, although sometimes the male lingers a bit...a couple of days ago whilst I was answering emails, he sat on top of the sitting room door singing. If it goes on like this we will end up giving them names!
Posted by Martin and Claudia Kelsey at Casa Rural El Recuerdo at 22:51
Sunday, 27 May 2012
When we first moved into our house El Recuerdo, there was an old Red-rumped Swallow's nest in the porch close to the kitchen door. The following year a pair nested in an old pigsty but since then nothing. Our neighbour has a pair nesting in his garage, as well as several pairs of Barn Swallow, but for many years, swallows of both species (as well as House Martins) would use our house to sunbathe on and our trees as places to seek shade - but with none nesting. So it was a thrill last year to have two pairs of Barn Swallows nesting on our property and this year one of those two nests has been repaired and occupied again. I admit to a special fondness to hirundines. As a small boy, I decided that House Martins were my favourite bird and whilst sharing my name with them was surely one of the reasons for my decision, I also loved to watch them in the skies above our village. There was an old half-timbered pub down the road with a grand House Martin colony and they struck me as cheerful and friendly, chirruping away as they worked on their nests, a throng of constant activity and so close to human presence. I was fascinated by their mud nests, save for a small entrance-hole a closed structure hanging from the eave and wall, made from hundreds of little pellets of mud, each one brought as a mouthful of mud to the nest. As a ten-year old I tried to emulate these nest-builders, gathering blobs of mud (in my fingers, not mouth!), mixing it with dry grass and forming a cup under the eaves of a small shed. I did not have the care nor the patience of the House Martins, and soon my blobs became lumps and although the nest would be finished within a day, it would fall off in big chunks soon afterwards.
In the second week of May this year we noticed that a pair of Red-rumped Swallows had started taking an interest in our porch. They have a lovely nasal twanging sort of call, that really does seem conversational and we would sit in the kitchen, listening to the Red-rumped Swallows chatting just outside the door. They liked to perch on the hook that I had put up a couple of year's ago for Claudia's hammock. Our pair of Barn Swallows nesting nearby seemed rather antagonistic at first to the Red-rumps and on one night the Barn Swallow pair roosted on the hook itself, as if to say "we do not want you here". However, if you look closely enough at Claudia's picture (taken on 12th May), you will see some tiny splashes of mud on wall near the Barn Swallows..
Clearly the Red-rumps had made some initial progress in getting a nest started. Sure enough on the photo of 14th May, the base of the cup is clearly visible and after that work started in earnest.
Just three day's later (17th May) the nest looks like a fully-formed Barn Swallow nest, but for the Red-rumps there was still much to do.
By 22nd May the cup was staring to close,
with the nest looking rather like a House Martin's the following day (23rd May)....
On 26th May, the nest was complete (12 days after the nest-building had started properly) and the pair were starting to line it with fine grasses.
In a fascinating paper by David Winkler and Frederick Sheldon published in 1993, they looked at the evolution of hirundine nests. It is thought that the early swallows made nest burrows (as indeed some, such as the Sand Martin, still do) and that the habit of constructing a hanging-nest from mud appeared once in the evolutionary tree of swallows (and swallows are the only birds that make this type of nest) possibly as an innovation to occupy areas where nest cavities or suitable substrates for burrowing did not exist. The subsequent elaboration of design may have happened for various reasons. One idea of why the Red-rumped Swallow has a closed nest with a long, narrow entrance is because the pair usually mates inside the nest and this reduces the likelihood of the female copulating with intruding males. Certainly, as with many birds, the male sticks pretty close to the female at all times at this early stage of the breeding cycle and a few days ago I saw a third Red-rumped Swallow being chased away from the site.
And so this summer we look forward to the delightful company of the Red-rumped Swallows in our porch, my only headache now is to find an alternatve site for Claudia's hammock!
Posted by Martin and Claudia Kelsey at Casa Rural El Recuerdo at 17:59
Tuesday, 8 May 2012
It is one of those birds that are quite widespread here, but hardly ever seen. Although this year, like many of our summer visitors, they seemed rather slow in arriving in strength, one can now hear Quail calling on almost any visit to the plains, especially if one is beside a growing cereal field. The call, usually rendered as "wet-my-lips" immediately gets one looking across the crop in a vain hope that the bird may be in view. If it is close enough, a short, soft double-noted nasal call can also be heard. It can be very difficult judging how close the bird is or in which direction the sound is coming from. And since the Quail is no bigger than a Skylark and will be calling from tall vegetation, the chances of seeing one calling are slim indeed. When I do see Quail, and this is very rarely, it is usually because I have been lucky enough to spot one on the track ahead of me, as sometimes they come out into the open to gather grit. Although they are mainly summer visitors here, a few do spend the winter, mainly in the rice stubble fields in central Extremadura, where occasionally I might see one flying up from my feet as I walk beside a field. So Tony and Alwin Knowles and I were fortunate indeed to not only see a Quail a few days ago, but also to watch it calling at length. We were driving along a quiet road, beside a field of wheat, when one called from quite close by. I stopped and then we realised that there were in fact two Quails calling, one responding to the other. Our bird was closer and I started to check the edges of the vegetation nearby, in what I thought would be a forlorn hope in seeing it. No sign. And then I realised that a bit further away there was something standing on a stone. Checking with my binoculars, I immediately realized I was looking at a Quail and I got Tony and Alwin onto the bird straightway. It continued to call, more intent on its rival than to our presence, whilst Tony managed to get the photo above. It is rare indeed to get such a prolonged view of this beautifully camouflaged and patterned bird.
Each month has its special features of course. What I like about May is that it combines the excitement of spring, with each day being different, as the season unfolds, whilst at the same time a growing sense that the breeding season of birds is now getting into place, almost all birds have now arrived, and a daily pattern or even routine is starting to take shape. Our garden Nightingale is back, and a creature of habit it most certainly is. At 7.30 am each morning it sings for a few minutes in a bush right beside the kitchen door. At 7.30 each evening it is snacking on the lawn, hopping about, tail cocked, looking for food, alongside the House Sparrows and Blackbirds. Martin Bennett's photo of a Nightingale this spring captures beautifully how fully it sings, not a species for subtle warbling.
The rice fields are starting to get flooded now and the sowing has started. Suddenly what had been dry and barren, now becomes attractive for birds. Late passage waders, such as Grey Plover and Ringed Plover have been appearing, along with a dozen or so other waders. Parties of Black-headed Gulls are passing through with a few marsh terns. It was checking these gulls a few days ago that I found this Mediterranean Gull - a very rare bird in Extremadura, indeed the only one I have ever seen here. Yes, May is like that: the pieces of the jigsaw are getting into place, but there is always the thrill of the unexpected as well.
Posted by Martin and Claudia Kelsey at Casa Rural El Recuerdo at 16:23
Monday, 30 April 2012
Well it has been a topsy-turvey spring. In mid-March we were in shirt-sleeves and even some brave souls ventured for a dip in the swimming pool. There had not, however, been any rain, as my blogs described. April started with a few showers and then cold windy conditions which have persisted throughout the month. The fresh, sometimes very strong, winds removed any benefit of the early April showers, dessicating the soil even further. Then, just as spring should be rolling into early summer, the skies have turned grey and we have experienced several days of rain. The soil is now truly damp, there is standing water in some of the fields and there has been a resurgence of growth, with some splendid shows of late spring flower meadows. If we are confused, I am sure that the birds are as well. Many have delayed breeding. Whilst some like Long-tailed Tits and Stonechats have fledged young already about, others like Crested Larks are only just started building nests. Generally the cold windy weather prevailing throughout April has tended to slow down the arrival of many migrants. So those species like Roller that start appearing in late March had a few vanguard individuals turning up on cue, but did not really arrive on strength until several weeks later. Species like Woodchat Shrike and Great Spotted Cuckoo were surprisingly thin on the ground even in early April, even though they are normally early migrants. I have yet to hear Red-necked Nightjar from home, which is a good week or ten days later than normal (STOP PRESS: I heard a Red-necked Nightjar last night, an hour after posting this blog), and my first Melodious Warbler was only on 27th April and that was a bedraggled-looking specimen feeding in the quince tree just outside the kitchen window.
However, there have been compensations. Our guests this month have had some wonderful experiences. Monfragüe National Park has been superlative, with I think the best views ever of the nesting Eagle Owls at the famous Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint. In this case, the drought has helped viewing conditions. Last year's wet spring produced a wall of green plants across the nesting ledge, hiding the young from view. This year, the growth died back quickly and the two chicks, often with Mum in attendance have been a delight. Just a few hundred metres away, the resident pair of Spanish Imperial Eagle are nesting and they have performed magnificent shows in front of the visitors: mobbing Griffon Vultures, displaying, calling, bringing in food, perched on trees or rocks, gliding in front of the cliff....again probably some of the most exciting views I can remember.
The cold and often overcast mornings have provided good viewing conditions for birds like bustards and sandgrouse on the plains with no heat haze to worry about and with the height of the meadow grass much lower than normal, birds have been easier to see. Close to the house, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker often provided superb opportunities to watch this often quite secretive species. So despite the landscape not winning prizes this year, for those prepared to brave the elements (especially the wind)..and birders are a hardy bunch of people...there has been much reward and special memories. One of our guests, Martin Bennett on his first visit here was able to make the best of the opportunities and a selection of his photos grace this posting. Many thanks Martin and we look forward to seeing you again next year! There have been many a memorable evening when guests, some like Martin, on their first visits and others coming to stay for second, third, fourth or even fifth time, share their experiences of the day, ask for advice for the next day's birding, all in a jovial relaxed homely atmosphere. We are proud to have set up this guesthouse for birders, where not only guests are able to get the best out of birding in Extremadura but also to build lasting friendships too.
Saturday, 31 March 2012
Whilst last spring the flowers were quite breathtaking, this year has been a real contrast, owing to the very severe drought. Finding orchids has been a real challenge, with flowering much later than normal, plants smaller and much sparser. Several species which were easy to find by this time last year have yet to appear. I wonder if they will. So it was with some trepidation that I ascended a green path, close to our home, a walk I do several times a year and always, always in late March. Not only does the track offer great views of the village, nestled in the hills, but the flowers at the base of the old stone walls and in the adjacent old olive groves form a sort of milestone for me in the progression of spring. I feared that some of my favourite plants were be hard to find, or even absent altogether. I was relieved and happy to find out that I was wrong. Stunning as always was the noble Iberian Fritillary (see the photo I took today) and several specimens were growing on either side of the track, tucked in close to the wall.
Champagne Orchids were bursting into flower (also photographed), dotted between ancient olive trees and beside patches of flowering rock roses and French Lavender. A few Conical Orchids were present too, but no sign of Sawfly Orchid which is usually findable at this time of the year. These resilient survivors gave me encouragement. There are places, refuges where for reasons of micro-climate, soil depth, aspect, less grazing pressure and other subtle factors, plants can buck the trend, where if one looks hard enough these plants can be found. Above me a pair of newly arrived Booted Eagles were heralding spring, calling and displaying, and whilst I retraced my steps, immaculate Green Hairstreak and Marsh Fritillary butterflies were also looking for flowers, reinforcing further the sense of optimism I had secured on my short afternoon walk.
Posted by Martin and Claudia Kelsey at Casa Rural El Recuerdo at 22:45