Monday, 25 January 2016

Stirrings

Stone Curlew at winter roost (Martin Kelsey)

The cues are coming in now thick and fast, there can be no denying it. Winter is being nudged away and the unstoppable forces of spring are stirring. It was not a delusion derived from the extraordinarily warm and sunny weekend that we enjoyed - I am too long in the tooth to be fooled by weather's fickle vagaries. No, by late January in Extremadura there are messages galore that we are now embraced by a transformation. Winter's days are truly numbered.

The Stone Curlews are still in their winter roosts and they stood, semi-comatose, hardly blicking in the sunshine because most had their eyes closed. But whilst I watched these motionless birds, I was absorbing both the warmth of the sun on my back and the sound of Barn Swallow song above me: a liquid, stroking cheer. In the villages, House Martins are already busily visiting their nests. There is further evidence of birds on the move. On my visit to Alcollarín Reservoir I was struck by the presence of over 700 Pintail, amongst the Shoveler and Mallard. There had been just a few dozen a couple of days earlier. However, even this figure was dwarfed by the spectacle that greeted me at the larger Sierra Brava reservoir. There a carpet-like mass of duck comprised over 5000 Pintail. These were newly arrived birds, probably from West Africa and pausing in Extremadura on their northward migration. For these Pintail, spring had started many days ago. I notice changing dispersion patterns: Lapwings having spent the autumn and winter spread thinly across the pastures are now clumped into flocks, and perhaps the locally wintering birds are now also being joined from birds, like the Pintail, already on the move. Certainly, the large flocks of Golden Plover which always start appearing from mid-January onwards must be mainly made up from birds that are moving in from the south.

Crocus carpetanus (Martin Kelsey)
At my feet too there are new forms and colours. High in the Sierra of the Villuercas, where puddles of water wobbled with loose caps of ice, Mountain Crocuses Crocus carpetanus have sprung from the green sward and in sheltered spots, there are already profusions of Hoop Petticoat Narcissus. But the most telling sign was revealed to me as I stepped outside in the evening. For as long as I can remember, I seek to comply with an evening ritual whereby just prior to retiring I step outside to take a few minutes of the night air. It is a moment for reflection and to feel perhaps the slight motion of a night-time breeze or indeed that often stillness once the stars emerge and sound can carry wondrously. There may be nearby mammalian rustles or, as there was that evening, the jerk of the Little Owl call. This routine gifts me a concluding communion of the day, a short solitary meditation. And as I stood there, the sound that speaks change emerged from the olive orchard, a lilting churring chorus - the love song of the Natterjack Toads. It was a cyclical cue with its unmistakeable message.





Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Favourite birds

Hawfinch (Martin Kelsey)
Overshadowed by the zany, ecstatic whistling whoops of the Spotless Starlings or the continuum of Serin tinkling, there is a hesitant, almost nervous addition to the morning soundscape in mid-January. It carries no sweetness or melodic flow, no accomplished songster this. But the bird plugs on regardless, modestly adding an almost random pitch into the late winter air. The jumpy, pause-laden chinking notes remind me of a forlorn occupant of a lonely window-seat in a cafe, absent-mindedly tapping his saucer with a tea-spoon, forsaken by his date. Looking up to the bare almond tree in front of our house, with its haphazard twist of twigs, old swollen almonds and buds on the verge of bursting, the stocky bird responsible for this modicum of song is revealed: a Hawfinch. It is perched rather stiffly, its massive triangle of a bill at a rigid right-angle from its bull-necked body. The bill opens and other dull metallic note is hit, a pause and then a slightly higher, more drawn out squeak of a wheeze, followed by another chikt.

I have a fondness for Hawfinches and it is one of my most profound privileges that Hawfinches love our garden. To me to see Hawfinches so close to the house, almost throughout the year (save the middle of spring when nesting turns them into silent, secretive creatures) is a source of joy. I am frequently asked what is my favourite bird of all and my truthful response is that I do not have one. How can I compare and rank the extraordinary diversity of birds and experiences across several decades? But, pin me down and force me to narrow down to within families of birds and then, I confess, certain birds emerge as sublimely special. Somehow a weave brings together significant memories, facets of plumage or behaviour that intrigue and engage and above all carry a sense of place. They are species that regardless how often I encounter them, the reunion is special, always.

Thus my favourite eagle is unquestionably, the Bonelli's Eagle. I recall my first, many many years ago, sailing out from behind a crag in southern Andalucia. It is a bird that exudes power and mystery, a bird of deep, rugged valleys, wild places, appearing always without fanfare. Often it arrives as a pair, when the small male will rise with the female on the wide arc of soaring flight. There is a strong bond between them, which I have often wondered must have something to do with their pursuit of birds (and often flying birds) as prey. These hunting encounters become life-long memories, such as when the pair works in unison, appearing to ambush a winter flock of Wood Pigeon: coordination and pincer-movements. Recently we stood beside a quiet bay of a reservoir, watching wintering duck. Distant dots distracted us and with the aid of a telescope we could see that they were soaring Bonelli's Eagles, several kilometres away, but the contrast between their pale bodies and dark underwings were unmistakeable, as were their long, but almost hawk-shaped wings. I watched them until they dropped out of sight behind the tree-tops of the rolling dehesa in front of me.

Suddenly there was a wave of terror as the raft of Pochard pounded the water surface and in synchronous panic became airbourne. Taking both duck and me by a start a dark form materialised low over the water surface. A second appeared from the other direction. Somehow, the Bonelli's Eagles had approached at speed, out of view, skirting the wood and keeping tight to the topography to launch a combined assault on the duck. The first bird, missing its target, braked hard and landed on the bank and watched as its mate continued in pursuit. This time the Pochard had gained enough speed and the eagle was outwitted, or perhaps it had been confused by the tremulous commotion of wings and water. It left me drained, breathless. But what inspired me most was the sense that perhaps these eagles had been planning their attack strategy whilst still soaring dots in the distance.
Wintering Garganey with Shoveler (Martin Kelsey
I was surprised last week to come across my favourite duck species, Garganey. I hope to encounter this always ephemeral species from Frebruary onwards, normally on otherwise unremarkable small bodies of water and often behaving in a rather self-effacing fashion (although we had a remarkable passage of these gorgeous duck last spring and it was possible to find courting drakes in frenzied bumper-car motion). Amongst a vast raft of roosting Shoveler, floated a dozing drake Garganey, rather easy to pick out with its broad pale head stripe and subtle mix of greys and browns, making the Shoveler extravantly gaudy in comparison. I wondered whether this was an extremely early spring arrival or perhaps a rare over-wintering bird.

And so the Hawfinch is my favourite finch, bursting with birding memories right back to my adolescence, fascinating me here in Extremadura as I have explored its month-to-month ecology, common enough to offer me encounters on an almost daily basis and yet each one triggering in me a response of deep gratitude.


Saturday, 9 January 2016

A visitor in the mist


Sociable Lapwing (Marc Gálvez)
As I look east from our gate, the cleft that is visible between the thousand metre high mountain of Pedro Gómez and our own more modest Sierra de los Lagares, is the pass which carries the road heading south-east of Trujillo onwards to Zorita and Guadalupe. This also marks the point of a hydrological divide. The steady drizzle gently massaging the soil where I stand and right up to the pass itself, about a kilometre and a half away, is now irrevocably teamed to the great basin of the Tagus River, spread over 80,000 square kilometres, feeding Iberia's longest river. The water molecules carried in these tiny droplets will explore an extraordinary diversity of routes: some entering the soil and draining into my vegetable garden will become part of me, whilst others may escape absorption into the myriad biotic cycles across this catchment and become part of the watercourses heading to the Tagus, with an eventual arrival into the Atlantic at Lisbon. Yet, from the exact point where the road crosses the pass and starts its hundred metre descent towards the village of Herguijuela, we meet the catchment of Extremadura's second great river, the Guadiana, in whose basin lies the vast area of irrigated farmland, harbouring most of our wintering Common Cranes, where a sister molecule will start a journey onward south to the Gulf of Cádiz. Whilst I stand here, a gravity-defying mantle of mist emerges from the Guadiana basin, using the pass itself to gain purchase, appearing like a monstrous amoeba to glide onto our tablelands and smother the slopes of Pedro Goméz itself.

I had been earlier on the plains just west of Trujillo. In contrast to the anticyclonic weather of most of winter so far, the prevailing low dense, pigeon-grey canvas of cloud deprived me of the sense of space in this most open of landscapes. Instead of a defined horizon and distant sierras, my sense of distance was now defined by hundreds of metres rather than tens of kilometres, with field and sky converging in washed tones of greys gradating to silven pasture green, droplets of water dangling from stems of grass. Glistening across the sward as highlights were sodden webs of the caterpillar colonies of Ocnogyna beatica (the Winter Webworm). But I cherished the elemental sensation of the wind and mist on my face, subject to the same environment as that of the Retinta cattle, stoically grazing in front of me. The Lapwings stood widely dispersed in the same field, almost monotone black-and white in this dull, leadened light. They pursued the plover-pacing hunt for prey, six or seven strides before abruptly stopping, pausing and then taking another push forward, or more often at a small deviation, leading to a zigzagged foraging pattern across the short turf. Occasionally the slightly wavered almost anguished cry of one of the plovers scratched across the nearly silent landscape. It was as if the very blanket of cloud had muffled sound. A party of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, 25-strong, shuffled halfway up a gentle slope, their dove-like heads in motion as they fed.

My lure took my gaze away from these birds, and there it was. Like its cousins, caught in the quick-paced rhapsody, with its black legs almost like clockwork levers, taking the bird forward, pausing and then onward again. But unlike the Lapwings, the smooth light brown-grey upperparts made for a perfect match with the tone of the day. Indeed it would have been hard to pick-up at all in this mist-veiled light had it not been for the dramatic white supercilium, trimmed above and below by a dark fringe. It had been many years since I had seen a Sociable Lapwing, and upon hearing of the luck that Gav Thomas, a visiting birder, had had in finding this bird, on one of my regular beats no less, it took no persuasion in  getting me out to celebrate this discovery. I stood in the modicum of shelter offered by a wispy Retama, to shield my telescope from the wind and now steady light rain. Thus I stood and watched this rare vagrant until I was satisfactorily satiated. I gave it my time in reverencial respect, deliciously savoring the occasion. As I watched my mind imagined the steppes of Kazakhstan, where most Sociable Lapwings nest, from where somehow this individual veered off its programmed migration route, joined up with Lapwings heading west into Spain and arrived on the open pastures just twenty minutes from home, instead of the grasslands of southern Sudan. This is one of the world's rarest waders, critically endangerd having suffered a catastrophic decline over recent decades, although the finding of a large flock of over three thousand birds at a stopover site in Turkey a few years ago has a cast a degree of optimism that the population may be a somewhat larger than feared. I wondered how long this symbol of the Central Asian steppes would stay here on the man-made steppic landscape of Extremadura, and hoped that when it finally departs, guided by its genes and its common (Northern) Lapwing neighbours it will safely get back home.

I thank my friend Marc Gálvez for the photograph of this Sociable Lapwing at the top of the post.