Monday, 29 September 2014

Waterside colours

Violet Dropwing (Martin Kelsey)
I could not take my eyes off its eyes: a calorific, almost luminous furnace crimson, round and compound. They were seemingly glowing and it was hard to discern a defined surface, it was if they flared. The rest of its body was equally loud, a vinaceous dandified plum colour. It stood, its three pairs of legs clasping the harsh-stemmed rush, its head partially rotated and then it had gone. I did not have to wait long for this territorial male to return and and there it was again, on the same perch, beside the same patch of still water. It was a Violet Dropwing, a dragonfly whose name describes both its hue and the way its wings hang forward at rest, like broad oars ready at an instant to push the insect into another dash at the waterside. It was not alone. From our position just downstream from a bridge crossing the River Almonte, without moving a foot, we could watch Epaulet Skimmers and Red-veined Darters, shifting in and out of the emergent vegetation. At our feet an Iberian Bluetail damselfly quietly hooked itself onto a stem, whilst on an island mid-stream was the bold and outrageous Blue Emperor.
River Almonte late September 2014 (Martin Kelsey)
The start of autumn is when one is confronted by a dragonfly climax and over the last few days, especially when the conditions are calm, they have captured our attention. The tools of birding are perfect for watching these predators too - binoculars and a camera, and the patience to stand still and seek to comprehend their behavioural patterns. Gradually one starts to map out territory boundaries, favourite perches, even the differences how the males and females use the habitat available. Water is coming back into that habitat as autumn unfolds. The River Almonte lay as a series of disconnected pools along much of its course over the summer, but September rains have been generous, sometimes as deluges across the plains.
The rain on the plains (Martin Kelsey)
Rivers and streams have recovered their flow and great autumn transformation takes place under our watch. We call it a second spring. I promised my companions, Cyril and Janet, that during the course of their week's stay with us, that they will witness the very colour of the landscape change...within days the cumultative effect of countless green shoots has brought back greenness to the countryside and everyone is talking about it. And more life is stirring, on a gentle slope in an open holm oak dehesa, despite the grazing pressure of sheep, we came across the most breathtaking spread of wild autumn crocuses I had ever seen, a delicate soft pink carpet embracing the close sward of this open wood pasture.
Autumn Crocuses (Martin Kelsey)
A peak of equinoxal changes: the dragonflies, the rebirth of the landscape and throughout all this the quiet but massive passage of small birds pushing across the Iberian peninsula. Out on the freshening plains, moving amongst the dry thistles, pausing on fences, sheltering in isolated shrubs continue countless flycatchers, Willow Warblers, Whinchats and beady-eyed Common Redstarts, our link here between the soft temperate deciduous central European woodlands and their tropical African sojourn. There they will share habitat again with Violet Dropwings. Like several dragonfly species, Violet Dropwings have only recently colonised southern Europe from Africa, spreading northwards and symbols perhaps of deeper change.
Common Redstart (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Chip chip chipping

Booted Eagle (John Hawkins)
There is a white wine freshness to these early autumn mornings, a clarity surfacing now, more crisply defined dawn wisps of cloud . There are fewer birds in the skyscape and soundscape compared to the spring, but this leaves the stage uncluttered and allows me to soak in solo performances, soliloquies. As I sit with a coffee at the edge of the garden, Woodlark song flows from the blue sky, never failing to move me. Its tranquil, sweet but almost melancholic lapping cadences lull me. Then comes the zany whooping whistles of Spotless Starlings, which give way abruptly to the mellow fluty warbling from a Blackcap in the top of the almond tree above me. I wonder whether this Blackcap is a bird on passage on one that has arrived to spend the winter here. It could be either.

The next performance comes again from the sky. A curious "chip-chip-chip-chip" draws my attention upwards. The sound comes from the direction of the risen sun and it takes a few seconds before the bird responsible has circled into safe view. It is an adult Booted Eagle. It circles low, a magnificent sight, calling continuously. Within my field of vision, a second bird appears and together they wheel. For the last ten days or so, this chipping call has been  a distinctive feature of the morning repertoire of bird sound, as it is at the start of every autumn. I am puzzled by this each year. These Booted Eagles (are they the local nesting pair or birds on passage from further north?) suddenly become a highly visible feature of the garden birding experience, just days now before they head south for their wintering quarters in Africa. Invariably it is a pair of birds, circling together, giving this short, repetitive high-pitched note. It sounds very close to that uttered at the time of pair-bonding and courtship in the spring......is it a means by which the pair reaffirm their bond before the more solitary life over winter? So far my search throuigh the literature on the species has failed to describe its role.

Red-rumped Swallow (John Hawkins)
The birds gain height and drift off, whilst Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins, the two most engaging of the hirundines, glide together in a loose pack. More surreptiously a Willow Warbler comes to bathe at the little pool I have recently provided for the birds. Over the last few days I have seen 14 species coming to drink or bathe, including migrating Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and Common Redstarts. Doubtless other species have also popped in the freshen up. The migration at this time of the year seems almost like a silk ribbon passing through one's fingers: it is happening under our very eyes, but by and large in silence, small birds moving in the dappled shadows of the shrubs and trees, a quiet tide drawn southwards across the landscape.

Pied Flycatcher at bird-bath (Martin Kelsey)