Sunday, 11 December 2011

Monfragüe's first visitors


Everybody who visits Extremadura with an interest in birds, and probably almost all visitors who come for other reasons too (be they cultural, gastronomic, landscape and so on) will visit the Monfragüe National Park at least once during their stay. This 18,000 hectare national park (declared as such in 2007, but previously a "natural park" since 1979) sits within a 100,000 hectare biosphere reserve and is one of the most important breeding areas for birds of prey in Europe. Indeed for the Black Vulture it has one of the largest breeding concentrations in the world with over 300 pairs. There is nowhere else where one can watch breeding vultures (three species), Black Stork, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Eagle Owl at such close quarters. Indeed so extraordinary can the views be, that local birders have nicknamed Monfragüe the "zoo". Tens of thousands of people come to Monfragüe every year specifically to watch birds and it is estimated that the total number of people who visit the park annually runs into hundreds of thousands. It is one of the few places in Extremadura where one is likely to bump into other birders, but the infrastructure and viewing facilities are so good that rarely does it feel crowded.

However, Monfragüe is much more than an amazing birding spot. Its history is very rich with a castle of Arabic origin and the medieval Cardinal's Bridge which acted as a key crossing place of the Tagus river (the longest river in the Iberian peninsular) for traders and livestock drovers travelling between Trujillo and Plasencia. The rocks are some of the oldest in Spain with extraordinary geological features visible. The folds in the rocks, pushing the sandstone strata vertically in places, created fissures and small caves and it is in these that some of the most fascinating aspects of the human presence in Monfragüe can be experienced. There are about 120 sites in the park where there are prehistoric cave paintings. The finest of these (see my photo) are visible in a cave just below the famous castle itself. The photo shows three types of painting superimposed. There is a lower line of rather stick-like figures, one with a plumed head-dress, with a smaller figure on the right of the group - perhaps a child. These date back to the Bronze Age. Immediately above them are other figures, probably painted using finger tips dipped in a paint made from Iron Oxide and eggs, these are thought to be from the Copper Age. However, the upper figure is superimposed onto a painting of an animal (a deer): this goes back about 11,000 years, to the Epipaleolithic. This wonderful and highly-prized collection of rock art can be visited by simply joining one of the guided tours of the cave. All a visitor needs to do is to go the park's information office and book a place on the tour. It costs nothing and usually the guide can speak English, if required. It is so easy that it is remarkable that more visitors do not take the opportunity of seeing these paintings at such close quarters.

The cave is narrow and leaning against one side of the cave to view the rock art on the other, one can imagine how people passing through Monfragüe thousands of years ago, sought refuge in the cave (it is much too small to have been a dwelling place). Whilst in the cave they would have crouched rather like I was doing, back against one wall, reaching out with paint-smeared fingers to the other wall. Over their left shoulders, these ancient visitors to Monfragüe would have looked out onto the undulating tree-covered landscape to the south of the cliff-face, as I was looking out onto the dehesa oak wood pasture today, the view only broken by the shape of a passing Griffon Vulture, gliding past at eye-level.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Dance Imperial

Sometimes the best comes last. It was a mid-November day with frontal systems bringing bands of overcast weather and gusts of wind, with brief breaks in the cloud with sunshine. It was just the day to be out in wide-open spaces, on the plains, under the vast dome of sky with its ever-changing tones, vast brushstrokes of whites, greys and blues. This was the sort of day when the big birds of prey, like the vultures, could drift across a whole field of view, with barely a flap, cruising rather than soaring. A few skeins of cranes and geese were moving southwest. On the plains themselves we found parties of Great and Little Bustard and a flock of over a hundred Pin-tailed Sandgrouse busy feeding on a short sward of fresh autmun grass.

We left the vehicle and walked east along an ancient drovers' trail, a Cañada Real, established by Royal (= "Real") decree early in Medieval times. For centuries these were the routes taken by the drovers and their herds of cattle or flocks of sheep, like nomadic pastorists bringing their animals off the northern mountains in the autumn, following the landscape as it became green after the October rains to grazing pastures to the south. They retraced their steps in the spring: thousands of animals moving along these strips of common land. This transhumance has almost died out and most of the movement is today by truck, but the trails remain as ribbons of public land, now marked with little granite posts bearing the initials VP ("Via Pecuaria" or Livestock trail). They give wonderful access across plains and into dehesa woodland and it was along one of these we spent the afternoon.

We headed initially across mixed farming land, rough pastures and cereals, but quickly the landscape because dominated by lavander with scattered bushy holm oaks. It was superb open terrain and looked excellent for eagles, indeed as we walked we flushed a couple of Iberian Hares, a much-favoured prey species of Golden Eagle here. However, by now we were being grazed by a belt of heavy rain, which although staying mercifully just to our west, made the sky damp and gloomy - certainly not good eagle weather. The breeze eventually carried the heavy shower onwards and away and gradually a few Griffon Vultures started to rise in the sky. I caught a glimpse of an eagle flying low, perhaps a couple of kilometres away, but soon it was gone. Shafts of late afternoon sunlight penetrated the thick cloud and a rainbow appeared over the path ahead. At that moment I heard a barking call, somewhat higher in tone than a Raven - unmistakeably the sound of a Spanish Imperial Eagle announcing its arrival. It quickly moved on stage, wings held close to its body, and then swooped upwards getting higher and higher, before turning to stoop downwards. This it repeated as its mate arrived from the same direction and we witnessed the sheer joy of the pair sky-dancing, rising and falling in magnificent loops, with sunlight catching their brilliant white leading edges to their wings, with sometimes a backdrop of moody storm clouds, and sometimes against patches of clear blue sky.

It was one of those moments when we, as observers, could feel both immensely privileged and at the same time extraordinarily humble, for to the eagles we must have been just mere earth-tied specks as they proclaimed their dominance of the skies in their courtship dance.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Cranes and Quinces


It is as if by magic and although it happens every year, it always amazes and surprises. A week ago the landscape was parched yellow, then we had two days of (very belated) rain and the temperatures dropped to the more seasonal low twenties. There has been an utter transformation with the pastures and plains turning emerald green. Looking closely at the ground, every square centimetre is filling with sprouting grass shoots and germinating seedlings. Out on the plains, there are thousands of the delightfully named ephmeral Autumn Snowflake: a tiny snowdrop-like flower on the most slender of reddish-brown stalks, along with the delicate white Narcissus serotinus, a widespread autumn-flowering bulb of understated beauty: six rather narrow white petals with an orange-yellow cup. Despite being early November, a few butterflies are still on the wing: Clouded Yellows, Red Admirals, whilst the Long-tailed Blues and Lang's Short-tailed Blues persist on the Daphne growing in our garden.

Autumn is marked also, of course, by the arrival of the Common Cranes, which in their own way also transform the landscape, or rather soundscape, with their gorgeous and evocative trumpeting becoming an almost constant sound whenever one is close to the their feeding and roosting areas. Perhaps a few days later in arriving than usual this year, and numbers are still building up (the winter peak is not normally reached until late November), there were nevertheless several thousand already looking quite at home on the rice and maize stubble fields just to the south of us. As is normal, some elected to feed in family groups, a pair of adults with one or two brown-headed juveniles, whilst others were in larger flocks. In the distance, lines and broken skeins of cranes moved against a dramatic sky where shafts of sunlght pierced the clouds. In a period of sunshine, a pair of Golden Eagles took to the wing, soaring with buoyant flight against a pale blue sky, whilst a Black Stork made an appearance just minutes later.

Back at home, I completed another autumn task, labelling the thirty jars of quince jam that I had made a few days earlier. Although there were plenty of quinces on the trees this year, many had starting rotting on the tree, so it was a time-consuming task to select suitable specimens and prepare the fruit for jam-making. Interesting, my parents told me that exactly the same had happened to their quinces, growing in a sheltered spot in their garden in north Norfolk, in England. Fascinating. Still, I had enough fruit to make a delicious jam, which will keep our guests happy at breakfast right through winter and spring.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

White-rumped Swifts


I had walked past that tiny cave dozens of times, but that morning with some visitors, I ventured into its mouth. Perhaps there would be some bats and certainly the view across the dehesa woodland pasture was superb. The ground was still parched dusty-yellow, contrasting with the dark green forms of the holm oaks. We stood just inside the entrance and took in the scenery. Suddenly whoooosh! I was aware just of quite a large animal flying past our heads (we could feel the air move) and seemingly disappearing ahead of us. A split-second impression. Was it a bat? Well, it seemed a bit too big and I was sure that I had seen a flash of white. A minute or so later, it swept out again, also just a few centimetres from our heads and this time, although the view was almost as brief, it was obvious that it was a White-rumped Swift.

This is quite a mystery species. Its home is Africa, where it is widespread and common. It was first recorded in Spain in Cadiz province in the late 1960s and was initially misidentifed as Little Swift (which also occurs there), although the two species are actually quite different in appearance. As you can see from the excellent photo by Raymond de Smet, it has a bold white throat, a rather narrow white rump and quite a slender tail, with the fork often held closed, so that the tail looks pointed. It is somewhat smaller than a Common Swift. It was first recorded in Extremadura in 1979. It nests in old Red-rumped Swallow nests, under overhangs on rock faces and sometimes bridges. Whilst a scarce and localised species, it is undoubtedly under-recorded. No one knows how many pairs breed in Extremadura, but we guess at least 50 pairs and probably over a hundred.

To see White-rumped Swift, you need to be looking anytime from late April to early May (they are the latest of our four breeding swift species to arrive here) in rocky gorges or steep river valleys, where there are Red-rumped Swallows. Carefully checking any swift you see, keeping it in view as it twists and turns, waiting to see if the white band on the rump shows. There are often feeding parties of Common Swifts in these sites, so more times than not the swift turns out to be the all dark Common. But the interesting thing about the White-rumped Swifts is that they stay much later here, well into the autumn, long after the Common Swifts have migrated. My encounter in the cave was on 19th October, and the latest date ever recorded in Extremadura is 29th October. So any swift seen in October in such habitat is very likely to be White-rumped (apart from the much larger and differently patterned Alpine Swifts, a few individiuals of which also linger on into October).

Just five minutes after the swift had flown out, in it whooshed again, closely followed by another. This time we were prepared and watched their trajectory. They had in fact flown directly (and amazingly rapidly) up into their nest, just above our heads. An old Red-rumped Swallow nest, it showed the diagnostic little white down feather at its entrance, which for some reason the swifts place there. What was extraordinary to watch was the way they entered such a narrow rocky entrance and then up to the nest: we could see how they folded their wings to squeeze at full speed through the narrowest of gaps. Realising we were so close to the nest, where they probably still had young, we withdraw from the scene as quickly as possible, leaving them in peace. I had never dreamed of ever being as close as this to one of our most enigmatic species.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Autumn drought


It is now mid-October, but it still feels almost like summer. The temperature is only now starting to edge its way slowly down from daytime maxima of 30 degrees and we have had no rain to speak of (apart from a few showers at the start of September) since June. People are starting to get worried. By now autumn rains should have started, the landscape should have started turning green. Our olive trees are laden with fruit, but the olives are small and are getting wrinkled. If there is not rain over the next few weeks, they will not fatten up and many will fall prematurely. The prospect for the winter olive harvest is not looking good. In my vegetable garden we still have tomatoes, melons and courgettes, but the winter cabbages are disappearing (I think by a mouse which literally pulls them downwards from its burrow) - one day the plant is there, the next day it is gone, with just a little hole showing where the stem had been.

The weird thing is that even though the weather and landscape scream summer, the garden birds are telling me autumn and winter. In the last blog I wrote about the autumn song of Robins. Now their song at dawn and dusk is accompanied by that of wintering Chiffchaffs whilst Black Redstarts (see John Hawkins´ photo) are taking up their winter territories. Yesterday and today I heard a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming from the top of dead branch just down the lane from the house, with another male drumming in response in the distance - signs again of ensuring that territories are identifed.


I also watched today a very brightly plumaged male Greenfinch having just completed its post-breeding moult. It was in spectacularly pristine condition, a really gorgeous bird with vivid yellow flashes on wings and tail and dove grey wings contrasting strongly with its mossy green body. It was gorging itself on cypress cones, a favourite food here in the garden in the winter for Hawfinches as well. As it was doing that, a Blackcap, a Chiffchaff and a Song Thrush were on the lawn below the tree, all of them winter visitors.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Robins return and autumn butterflies


There is no more sure sign of autumn here that hearing the liquid song of a Robin breaking into the first glimmers of light at dawn. The last few days of September or start of October is when I will hear this for the first time as a newly arrived Robin establishes its winter territory in the garden. Our Robins are winter visitors, turning up at the start of autumn and staying with us until March. When they are here they seem as fully part of the garden birdlife as our resident species, and as winter visitors they are very common across Extremadura, in gardens, woodland and olive groves.I love to hear their ticking call from the shady undergrowth and their evocative autumn song on a still dawn when there just a glow of red showing over the mountain of Pedro Gómez, 1100 metres high just a few kilometres to the east of us, brings a deep sense of nostalgia.

So we have this fascinating re-arrangement of species at the moment as the seasons change. The weather remains hot and dry, and the garden is alive with butterflies. The impressive Cardinals fly around the nectar sources and glide across the garden as a whole, with an air of entitlement, almost proprietorial, whilst in a far more subdued fashion (until they start a spiralling dispute over food-patch) Long-tailed Blues and Lang's Short-tailed Blue. They are rather similar to each other, with the Long-tailed Blue showing, as you can see on my photo above, a more striped as opposed to blotchy underwing of Lang's Short-tailed (photo below).

Friday, 30 September 2011

Changes on the rice fields


What a difference a few weeks can make! I spent several hours at the start of the month driving around through areas of rice production and frankly not seeing very much in the way of birds. The crop had not been harvested, although it was starting to turn yellow, so the paddies were densely covered by rice, making it very hard for anything other than White Storks and egrets to reach the water and find delicacies such as crayfish and frogs. Over the past few days however, I have been back. In some of the areas over 50% of the crop has been harvested and the big combines with their caterpillar tracks will be harvesting the rest right through October and even into early November.

Extremadura is one of the top rice-producing areas in Spain and the area of rice production has increased significantly since the 1970s. Far from the coast and with low rainfall (although average rainfall in Extremadura is higher than eastern England), intuitively it does not appear to be the most logical place for such a crop. However, thanks to a massive infrastructure of reservoirs (even though it is land-locked, Extremadura has more "coastline" than other region of Spain - because of the numerous artificial water bodies, as well as large rivers crossing the territory), canels and pipelines, water is moved from storage onto the flat valleys of the Guadiana river and its tributaries in central Extremadura. When conditions have been favourable for the rice-producers and subsidies available, paddies have even been built on terraces, rising on slopes to encroach what was steppe country or dehesa woodland.

It is a classic dilemma for the conservationist. Certainly areas of habitat supporting communities of very special animals and plants have been lost under this intensive agriculture. However, the ricefields have created a new wetland habitat in Extremadura which not only has added considerably to biological diversity, it is now considered to be of international conservation importance. The wet paddies provide wonderful habitat for migrating waders - they are an important stopover for birds like Black-tailed Godwit, as well as being used by tens of thousands of wintering Common Crane and waterfowl.


The farming operations underway at the moment are creating, inadvertedly, the right conditions for these birds. Many of the paddies are left as stubble after harvest. These are the fields where the cranes, geese and duck will be feeding in a few weeks time. Other fields are quickly "ploughed" by tractors using iron frames instead of back wheels. Hundreds of gulls and egrets follow the plough, and indeed today I saw dozens of Yellow Wagtails doing the same. These are the fields that will be visited by waders, through autumn, winter and early spring. In one field I watched today there were over 95 Common Snipe and about 50 Spotted Redshank, as well as small numbers of other waders. The same field two days ago had over 120 Ruff. Overall in two fields I found 16 species of wader, including small parties of Little Stint busy feeding together in glorious autumn sunshine. The ditches between the paddies are superb for wintering Bluethroats. Overall it is one of the best areas to enjoy a winter's birding anywhere in Europe.

The irony now is that there is concern from some conservationists over the possibility that rice production might decline as a result of changes in European agricultural policy. The rice fields in Extremadura are productive both in terms of growing food, as well as creating a habitat which is being exploited by different birds throughout the year. I would not necessarily wish any more dry open country or woodland to be converted to irrigated and flooded land, but I do hope efforts are made to maintain what we have.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

September surprises


September is always a fascinating month with the equinox, the change of season. The month started with some deceptively cool and wet weather but soon reverted to the final blast of summer with very hot and sunny conditions. Now in its final days, the month is slowly recalibrating to autumn - the sky is still a brilliant blue, but there is a refreshing chill at dawn, the nights are getting longer. The changes are marked by the wildlife as well, a month that starts with the skies full of Bee-eaters. As their arrival in spring, so their departure, the Bee-eaters seem to get higher and higher, just passing over, eventually revealing their presence just by their whistled "prrruit", like old-fashioned referee's whistles. It is a time too for surprises, as one never knows what migration wil bring.

Just this week, two Belgium birders staying with us had the amazing good fortune to be at the right place at the right time. Standing out on the nearby Belén plains early in the morning, whilst looking for Great Bustards, they saw an odd-looking bird fly over. Equipped with a fine camera and lens, Raymond De Smet had presence of mind to take a series of photos as the bird passed. One of them is at the top of this posting - it shows a Cream-coloured Courser, a desert species from North Africa and only the second time ever it had been seen in Extremadura (there was one seen twenty years ago). They didn't manage to see where it landed because at that moment they were distracted by a Wild Boar which approached closely. That in itself would have been a highlight of the day!

The following morning, and the morning after that, I too was out on the Belén Plains, with Kevin and Catherine from North Wales. The Cream-coloured Courser is a sandy-coloured bird, which more or less describes the colour at the moment of kilometres and kilometres of suitable habitat on the open plains here...talk about a needle in a haystack! Well we never refound the Courser (it may well have left the area completely by the time we were there)and nor did others out looking for it as well, but it was really special to be out on the plains at first light, watching Stone Curlew, Great Bustards, my first Hen Harrier of the autumn and on the second morning three of our rather grey-looking foxes (see John Hawkin's photo here)romping around at play.



Still there are other surprises. Earlier in the month, I was out at dawn on the plains and from the car settled down to watch three Great Bustards close by. As I watched I saw something I had never seen before. Two of the bustards were juveniles, albeit practically fully grown. The adult bird, a female was pecking at the top of dead thistles. It picked off an item of food (perhaps an insect or a thistle seed) and immediately one of the younger birds ran up and pecked the food from its mother's bill. The adult found another item of food, held her bill still and again the juvenile came forward to take it. I had always assumed that bustard chicks, being precocious (like chickens) find food for themselves as soon as they hatch, and indeed according to the literature they do, although the hen will sometimes pick up food for them when they are small. What surprised me was that such large juveniles were still receiving from the adult. It just demonstrated that you never know when you will seen something new and unexpected, it is a question of observation and curiousity. It may have lacked the excitment of a rarity like the Courser, but there was a thrill at witnessing something new, another insight into the life and behaviour of such emblematic birds.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Look up


The start of September and the season is turning. Although it is still hot during the day, the dew lies thick on the lawn at dawn and there is a freshness to the sky. The epitome of passage here, a Willow Warbler, is busy feeding in the shrubs. It is a time for late summer chores and for a few hours each morning this week, I have been chopping off the tall shoots that have grown at the base of the olive trees. This leaves the base of the trunk nice and clean which makes laying down the net for harvesting the olives during the winter a much easier endeavour. It probably also ensures that tree pushes its resources into the olives themselves, or so folk will say. They are certainly fattening up, helped a lot by a couple of heavy rain storms late last week. As far as birding is concerned, this is the time for passage migrants and in many respects I may as well be spending the time in the garden as any where else. Indeed, I spent a fruitless morning last week in the rice growing area, looking for muddy fields which would attract waders, but all had dense rice crops, maize or tomatoes. Even a pool which usually has been a wonderful spot in September was almost dry this year. My compensation was seeing dozens of Lesser Kestrels on the wires crossing the open plains - perhaps some were local birds, but I suspect that many had come from further afield.

No, the garden is the place to be...looking up between olive trees I watched two Black Stork circling above whilst minutes later a fine adult Egyptian Vulture drifted over, followed shortly afterwards by another. I have seen a female Montagu's Harrier and sometimes there have been three Booted Eagles and a couple of Short-toed Eagles in the sky together. Like the Lesser Kestrels, are they local birds or passage migrants? Noisy parties of Bee-eaters are also passing over, as are groups of Alpine Swift. It is a fascinating time of year. I have just finished reading David Lindo's book on the Urban Birder, where he shares the advice to look-up - whether in town or country, or in my case this week the garden..otherwise you have no idea what you are missing!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Extremadura in the British Birdfair


We are over in England at the moment and last weekend took part in the team of colleagues from Extremadura to promote the region on the Extremadura stand at the British Birdfair in Rutland. For those of you who have never been to the Birdfair, it has been likened to a Glastonbury Festival for birders. Indeed, a friend Peter Dunne from New Jersey Audubon Society told me at Rutland, that after revisiting the Birdfair after a ten year absence he was struck how it had changed from being like a trade fair, to becoming a real Festival (or fair in the traditional sense of the word). Yes certainly business is done, contacts are made, books are launched and products are bought, but key to its success is that people have a great time, it is a really enjoyable gathering. As well as the hundreds of stands of exhibitors promoting great birding destinations, equipment, artwork, photos, local and international charities, there are lectures and events, celebrity happenings and activities for children. What is critical to its sustainability, longevity(this year's Birdfair is the 23rd) and indeed contributing to its unique character is the volunteerism. In 2010 no fewer than 280 volunteers were involved (amazingly for an event that attracts well over 20,000 people and 350 exhibitors, there is only one full-time staffer and not a cent comes from government subsidy). The volunteers save the Birdfair £50,000 in labour costs, all of which goes towards the quarter of a million pounds or so that the Birdfair contributes annually to international conservation. This year the conservation theme was the migration flyways linking Europe and Africa. Because all proceeds go to conservation, combined with the volunteer spirit, there is a real sense of family and goodwill - from the visiting public contributing through entrance fees to the loyalty and support from exhibitors: we all feel part of something big and hugely worthwhile.

It is also like a reunion of friends and family. I meet people I have known for over thirty years and it is always a joy whilst on the Extremadura stand to catch up with people who have stayed at our house El Recuerdo over the years. One shares the celebration of friends as books get launched - David Lindo's wonderful book on becoming an Urban Birder is thoroughly recommended.

Extremadura has had a stand at the Birdfair longer than any other Spanish region. I work full-time on the stand along with my colleague Godfried and a representative from the Extremadura Tourist Board, this year Karissa. We are in the photo above with Tim Appleton (co-organiser of the Birdfair on our stand). We are always accompanied by friends (other guides and guesthouse owners) who come to promote their businesses.

Post Birdfair, Claudia, Patrick and I are having a short break in Cley, where my parents live at North Norfolk. It gives me a chance to see some birds that we do not get in Extremadura, as well as helping me track the changes happening to British birds. It is almost twenty years since we moved from Britain and whilst British-based birders now have gotten used to seeing Little Egrets on the Norfolk coast and elsewhere, I still double-take when I see one fly over my path in Cley (thirty years ago my friends I raced across the county to see a Little Egret). A flock of Spoonbills is now a regular sight here. However, I also reflected whilst watching a fine male Red-backed Shrike yesterday that this is now extinct as a regular breeding bird in the UK, whereas on my first visit to the RSPB reserve of Minsmere in the late 1960s, there were pairs nesting beside the carpark there and along the footpath to the beach.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Nightingale repertoire and summer fiestas



It is the height of summer here. It has not rained for weeks and although this month has so far been a lot fresher than is normal for July, the temperature in the afternoon is still getting above 30 degrees. It is the time for taking things at a slower pace and indeed everyone and everything seems to be following suit. There is a silence across the towns and villages in the afternoon as people stay indoors and enjoy a siesta. Swallows and House Martins sunbathe on the south-facing ledge of our house, adopting extraordinary postures with wings held up and heads tilted. They are only disturbed by a passing Booted Eagle, which causes them to get airbourne and start mobbing the raptor. The only sound comes from the greenery in the garden, where thanks to watering, there is damp soil in the shrubby shade. From the shadows come distinctive but very different sounds - a croak which sounds as if it must come from a frog (and we do have plenty of those) and a squeak which must be from a rusty bicycle but it is coming from the opposite direction to the lane. There they go again and a slight movement betrays the creature responsible (and indeed, the two sounds come from the same source). A flicker, a tail cocked-up and then showing rufous as it flies into even deeper shadows. It is a Nightingale. And just to prove it there is the briefest snatch of sound which recalls the full, liquid notes of its song. I am happy to say that Nightingales are common here and by the beginning of April I expect to hear the first Nightingales singing in the village as I get up before sun rise. We have them in the garden, sometimes singing right next to the house. Last year one sang under our bedroom window for most of the night. Now they have stopped full song and finished breeding. We have an adult and a juvenile spending their post-breeding period in the garden close to the house. They lurk in the shadows, only coming out to hop on the lawn at first light or chase sparrows away from favourite feeding areas. There are also juvenile Blue Tits, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Hawfinches around, whilst our two pairs of Barn Swallows have successfully reared their young (one already with two broods completed). This year for the first time a pair of Moorhen appeared on our pond (which is not much bigger than our kitchen). They remained amazingly elusive, keeping under the cover of the bramble and quince bankside vegetation, with only the occasional call note revealing their presence. However, my suspicions were confirmed a couple of days ago when I caught glimpses of two chicks that they had stayed to breed here.



One by one over the summer, the towns and villages here will be celebrating their fiestas. Our hamlet (Pago de San Clemente) is one of the first with the Fiestas de San Juan in late June. This year the party lasted two nights with music and dancing until dawn, with the village then getting together in the shade of trees infront of the church to have a charity auction of local produce. The cheeses, hams, chorizos, tortillas and wine that people bid for are then shared by all, creating a wonderful event that brings all together to enjoy the typical delicacies of the area.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Bouncing bustards


It was late May and I was taking our guests KY Shum and his partner Cathy Chan from Hong Kong into the field for their last morning in Extremadura. KY had sent me in advance a list of species that they were particularly interested in photographing. One of them was the Little Bustard. I knew of a place about twenty minutes from home where a male Little Bustard was regularly coming out onto a track to display. If we were there at first light, KY should be able to get some pictures. As we approached the track in my vehicle there was no sign of the bird. We stopped and I carefully checked the area. Almost immediately I found it, not on the track but close by in the yellow-dry steppe grasses. KY carefully got out of the vehicle and stood behind the gate at the entrance of the track, with the car behind him, so his outline was invisible. It was perfect early morning light and no sign of heat shimmer. As we watched, the Little Bustard threw its head back as it called, delivering a rather far-carrying sound, like someone blowing a raspberry. Its intention was to attract females with this show. As if rude sounds were not enough, it then jumped up into the air, like a bounce really. As it did its striking black and white neck feathers were erected, giving it almost a cobra-like hood and the largely white flight feathers also added to the visual impact. KY got his photo - a wonderful study of Little Bustard in full display.

Despite the tall vegetation, late spring is one of the best times of the year to see Little Bustards. This is because from late April to mid-May, males are at the apex of their display period and they want to be as highly visible as possible in order to be found and chosen by the highly selective females. They grow their boldly patterned neck plumage, stand on mounds, boulders or anywhere that will enable their heads and necks to stick up above the level of the tall grasses. They call almost incessantly in the morning and the evening. If one stands in good Little Bustard areas one can hear three of four calling at one time and with careful scanning usually find them as well. They will do their bounce, as KY's photo shows and males will also chase each other in a wide circling flight, their wings making a whistling sound, which gives them their Spanish name "Sisón". The females lack the bold neck pattern and can be seen if one carefully checks the vicinity, slowly approaching a favoured male.

The other excellent time to see Little Bustards is in the winter when they form flocks, sometimes of several hundred strong. They prefer to be in fields where there is tall dry vegetation such as dead thistles or stubble and can often be quite well concealed. However, the low morning or evening sunlight will catch the white underparts to reveal the birds' presence.

Sadly, the Little Bustard is in trouble. Over half of the Iberian population occurs in Extremadura and neighbouring Castille La Mancha, more than half of the global population occurs in the peninsular. However, surveys carried out in Extremadura suggest a decline of 75% in just eleven years, and overall across Spain the decline is thought to be about 30% (De Juana, E., 2009 Ardeola 56:119-125). The overall negative trend is probably due to gradual changes in land-use and agricultural practice, but why the decline would be more marked in Extremadura, no one knows. After all, here in many of the steppe areas the land-use practice is still quite traditional, with a slow rotation system, low intensity land-use and mixed farming. The results of the survey match many anecdotal observations of those who have been birding in Extremadura for twenty or more years. It goes to show how important these regular surveys are, but they also need to be followed-up quickly with more in-depth studies of factors that may influence population trends. A morning on the plains in late spring without hearing the Little Bustard call or watching it "bounce" would be unimagineable.

For more of KY's photos go to

https://picasaweb.google.com/kyshum/SpainWildBirds

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Of butterflies and birds


Last August I posted a blog about butterflies in the garden. Earlier this year some good friends of ours Peter and Jan Farrbridge got in touch to suggest coming to spend a week with us in early June, for some birding of course, but with also with a special focus on butterflies. I was very enthusiastic about the idea. It would be new for us and a great challenge to come up with a suitable itinerary to take into account the likelihood of high temperatures, but the need to spend as much time as possible on foot. As with a bird tour, generally speaking the greater the diversity of habitats visited, so the number of species of butterflies seen should be greater. Given that Peter and Jan also wanted to see as many as possible of most sought-after birds as well, I looked at routes that would focus on birds first thing in the morning (with a specially early start for the bustards and sandgrouse of the steppes - even a couple of hours after sunrise, the heat haze would make viewing very difficult) and then shift to butterflies by late morning and for the afternoon. I included four areas of higher altitude habitats, partly to escape the heat and also because these would be particularly productive for butterflies as well at this time of the year (actually they were great for birds too like Honey Buzzards, Bonelli's Eagles, Red-billed Choughs, Ortolan Buntings and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers to name but a few). Peter and Jan also wanted the pace to be as relaxed as possible - they were on holiday after all(!), so we took it easy. We had no particular target in mind, but by the end of the week we had seen 46 species of butterfly. We were delighted! However, as always, it is not the numbers that count, rather the special experiences that will fix in the memory. Let me relate two. We spent a full day at the highest point of the Villuercas Mountains (at 1600 metres).

Within minutes we were watching Glanville (photo above), Marsh and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, as well as Sooty and Purple-shot Coppers (photo below), attractd to patches of French Lavander, which at this altitude was still in flower.

As we proceeded down the road, we chanced upon patches of brambles in flower. Here we could simply stand and be bowled-over by the profusion of butterflies, such as Cardinals and the gorgeous Southern White Admiral (see photo at top of page) and Iberian Marbled White (see below).

We had lunch beside a small grassy clearing. Here the bizarre Owlfly (Order Neuroptera) which buzzed around in their predatory manner like little flying robots. During that day we had barely travelled more than a couple of kilometres along this little road and had seen no fewer than 24 species of Butterfly. Another special memory comes from our visit to the Honduras Pass (again about 1500 metres above sea-level) above the Jerte Valley in the Gredos mountains.



High Brown Fritillaries were in profusion (see photo above)and we also found species such as Rozy-Grizzled Skipper, but constantly in the background we could hear nothing else apart from the rather plaintive, but enchanting song of Ortolan Buntings (photo below). And as we stood straight after stooping to look at butterflies, we could simply take in the glorious mountain scenary.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Thickbills in the thistles


This is one of my favourite times of the year to be in garden. And one of the reasons for this is that one of my favourite birds are very easy to watch here at the moment. It is the Hawfinch or Picogordo in Spanish which translates as stout or thick bill. Over the years here I have almost worked out the annual cycle of our local Hawfinches. I know that in the winter they will come to feed on ripe olives, on the fruit of cypresses and I have even seen one pick up an unshelled almond. In late winter we often see a male singing from the bare tree in front of the house. In March the place to find them is where there are Southern elm trees. They feast on the mast. There is a clump opposite the church just down the lane. And then they disappear. During most of April and May they can be hard to find - a fleeting glimpse of a bird in flight here, another disappearing across a wooded valley there. The reason is that they become very secretive during the breeding season. They must be breeding close to us - perhaps in one of the tall Cork Oaks nearby, perhaps in an old olive, because suddenly, come the end of May, family parties of Hawfinches arrive as if out of the blue. The reason why they come is because of the Milk Thistles. We have a thriving population of these in our field and garden and at this time of the year the flowers have withered and the seeds have ripened, sitting atop the spiky thistle head, which is somewhat reminiscent of a spiky headed dinosaur, and viciously sharp. Hawfinches love them. At almost any time of the day the metallic chink calls of adults and young can be heard and from the kitchen window I can watch these splendid birds attempting to land on top of the thistle, plucking a seed and flying off again. I first saw Hawfinches almost forty years ago, when as a schoolboy, I wandered along the lanes through open woodland near my home in South Wales. I still remember my first sighting - a bird perched on top of what I called the "Woodpecker Tree". They are quite common here and one can even find small flocks of them in wooded valleys, attracted by wild olives (I once counted 35 lined up on an overhead cable), but it is the proximity of them here in the garden which I count as a real blessing. Even now, I get a flutter of excitement whenever I see one: common they may be here, but never commonplace.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The allure of the Black Wheatear



It is a funny old spring here...after weeks of hot dry weather, most of the last three weeks have been wet. The landscape that was starting to turn yellow has been reinvigourated almost beyond belief, with grass shooting up, which makes finding Little Bustards quite a challenge. The late spring flowers are putting on a grand show - yesterday Claudia and I came across a meadow near us with a dark pink hue thanks to hundreds of wild gladioli. After most of the last few weeks in the field with guests, I dodged the showers of the last few days to put the vegetable garden back in order, discovering the rows of onions, garlic and beans amongst the rampant vegetation of my neglected plot. Tomorrow I head to Madrid to pick up two more guests coming for a week's birding holiday here. It does not matter how many times I have collected clients at the airport, the sense of trepidation remains. What will their expectations be? What is their preferred pace? What do they particularly want to see? Unlike someone who takes tourists around castles and churches, I cannot guarantee that any of the species my guests want to see will be at the desired date, time and place. My subjects are free and wild. If we do not find a sought-after species where I hope to, my guests will count on my experience and local knowledge to find it somewhere else. Success will depend on that experience, plus a reasonable dose of luck and good fortune.

One of the most sought-after species is the Black Wheatear, a species resident in rocky places found just in the Iberian Peninsula (with a few in southern France) and north-west Africa. It is rather enigmatic, especially here in Extremadura. There is a lot of suitable habitat for it, but it is rather scarce. I am worried too that the species may be declining here - places where I always used to find it have been strangely bereft of the species. But even where the bird is still present, it can sometimes be very easy to see, perched confidently on high pinnacles and crags, but sometimes apparently absent. They have rather large territories and the very nature of their craggy habitat, can make it easy for them to slip out of view. I took a couple of guests to a favourite spot of mine where a river cuts a deep gorge. For an hour we waited, enjoying magnificent scenery plus a good selection of birds of prey drifting overhead. Just as we were about to leave, almost on cue, onto the stage swooped a male Black Wheatear, its brilliant white rump and tail (just barely tipped black) contrasting with its black body and wings. It gave its quiet song from the roadside and then parachuted down, tail fanned, down the scree slope. Black Wheatears are rather large for the genus with short, rounded wings which are ideally suited for drifting and gliding downwards on cliffs and rocky slopes. They nest in holes in old buildings, walls and crevices. Like some other wheatears, the male brings stones to the entrance of the nest, sometimes as heavy as 10g and in one case weighing apparently 28g which is about two-thirds of the bird's weight! According to the Handbook of the Birds of the World, thousands of small pebbles can accumulate at the nest entrance of sites used in successive years. The photos with the this posting are taken by John Hawkins and the second one shows a female (rather browner than the male) carrying a lizard almost as long as she is to the nest..to give to the nestlings! Like another favourite of mine, the Bonelli's Eagle, Black Wheatears are simply evocative of crags and old castles, set in magnificent rocky landscapes, a vivid black-and-white allure and certainly a wonderful enigma.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Moments with migrants



















Throughout more or less the whole of the first part of spring I have been sharing my enjoyment of the birds and other wildlife in Extremadura with guests who I have taken out into the field. Almost the whole time, the sun has been shining and the temperatures have been more like May than early spring. Just this week, we are being rained on (the land needs it desperately) and this break in the weather has matched exactly a few days to be based at home. It is a great opportunity to take stock of the season so far. Most of the summer migrants have arrived on cue and the rest somewhat earlier than usual. Observers in many countries are recording arrival dates of migrant birds and these are showing a trend for some species to be arriving a little earlier each year. The same is true in Spain. This year's big surprise in this respect were the Red-necked Nighjars, which were first heard in our village on 10th April, a good week or so before I usually hear them from home. Melodious Warblers also were particularly early. Being out every day is far from boring...every time I am in the field, there will always, always be something memorable that draws my attention, provides a surprise or simply becomes a special moment to treasure. Never more so than during migration time when the panorama changes every day with new arrivals, species passing through. One can visit the same site several days in succession and the mixture of species seen will be different everyday. Two moments stand out in this respect. One was a morning drive along a quiet road in the plains to the south of us. We had watched the magnificence of displaying Great Bustards and I stopped a few hundred metres further on because I had heard the soft bubbling call of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. But something else caught my eye..something large, brown and white in the field. I checked with my binoculars. It was an Osprey. This fish-eating bird of prey is a migrant here and a species one quite often finds at our reservoirs or along the large rivers, but here was one sitting in an open field in the steppes...indeed two Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew across my field of view - now those and Osprey in view simultaneously..wonders will never cease!



The next moment was more subtle. We were standing beside a gravelly pool. In the tamarisk and willow bushes beside us warblers sang: Melodious, Cetti's, Willow and Western Bonelli's (this spring has seen a good passage of them across our area: see John Hawkin's photo at the start of the post), along with a Nightingale. On the pool in front were Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, a few Collared Pratincole, some passage waders (Dunlin, Little Stint, Ringed Plover) and some resident species (Kentish and Little Ringed). As we scanned the water's edge we came across a fine Stone Curlew and just when we thought that fifteen minutes could not be more productive, a Spoonbill came in to feed. All we had done was to get out of the car, walk a hundred metres and then stand in the shade of a large willow tree. Another special moment had become fixed into our memories.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

More orchids

Since my last post, I have been spending practically everyday in the field and I will do a post later on some of the spring birds we have seen. It has been an odd spring with over three weeks with hardly any rain and above average temperatures (it has just started to rain again today). But I just want to follow-up on the theme of my last blog on orchids with the unfolding story of orchid spring in Extremadura. Just a few days after that blog (written in late March) I was back at the site I described. This time, the Woodcock Orchids (Ophrys scolopax)which I had failed to find in March, were abundant and what a gorgeous and varied species it is.



We also found Dark Ophrys (Ophrys incubacea).



As April progresses, so the first flush of the early spring orchids fade (although the verges near our house still have Champagne orchids in flower). Interest then turns to the species characteristic of late spring. Locally, these are predominantly the tongue orchids or Serapias. We visited a great area for these just a couple of days ago. Hundreds were in flower. They are a terribly complex group to identify and I have still not yet acquired a decent key or identification tool, so let me simply put some photos of them on the blog and if anyone has any ideas please let me know! Certainly the photos include Serapia lingua, but perhaps there is a Serapia vomeracea or Serapia cordigera there as well!



I will be back there when I can, and this time studying some of the anatomy of the flowers a little more closely!

Monday, 28 March 2011

Orchid spring

Extremadura is world famous as a destination for birders and each spring people come from many countries to visit Monfragüe National Park to enjoy the spectacle of vultures, eagles and Black Storks, as well as going to the plains near Trujillo and Cáceres for Great and Little Bustards, sandgrouse and other open country specialities. Most also visit the reservoir of Arrocampo near the town of Almaraz to see Purple Heron, Purple Swamphen, Little Bittern and other wetland species. Not many realise that just a few minutes from the reservoir is one of the best orchid areas in the province of Cáceres: the Cerro de Almaraz. We went there last Sunday, grabbing a couple of hours of quality family time during our peak season for guests. There is an orchid trail, taking one through a landscape of olive groves on a chunk of limestone, an unusual bedrock in the province. Hence the orchids. The first impression are the hundreds and hundreds of spikes of the Naked Man Orchid (Orchis italica), dominating tracts of orchard and the verges. They are very robust and vary in colour from almost white to dark pink.



Almost as common was the Conical Orchid (Orchis conica).




Patrick is very good at finding Yellow Bee Orchid (Ophrys lutea)- his favourite -



and like the gorgeous Mirror Orchid (Ophrys speculum) we found lots once we had got our eye in to their scale - little clumps and much smaller than the Naked Man Orchids.



Patrick also found some Champagne Orchids (Orchis chamapgneuxii), a species that also occurs on our more acidic soils around our village,



as does the very beautiful, highly variable and quite widespread Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera).



We also found the showy Pink Butterfly Orchid (Orchis papilionacea), a species which also occurs near our village.



I was very pleased to show Patrick a few Fan-lipped Orchid (Orchis collina) - sometimes known as Hill Orchid, which flowers early so it is the end of the season already for that species.



We did not find Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax), which we did see last year, but perhaps it is a bit early for it this year. Still, we were delighted with our list of eight species, found within just a couple of hundred metres of distance in little more than half an hour.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Larks and daffodils






















Throughout early spring there really is no better place to be than out on the plains of Extremadura. The mosaic of traditional rotation low intensity farming provides a long list of attractions. The obvious may be the lekking Great Bustards or displaying Montagu's Harriers, but the more understated can be just as memorable. Throughout February and most of March the early spring flowers start adding a delicate set of colours to the landscape, just before the exuberance of the artist's palate that is April. Sand crocuses and the gorgeous Barbary Nut Iris, for which you need to be out in the afternoon to see at its best, as the flowers remain resolutely closed in the morning. Searching carefully one can find Sawfly Orchids as well. One of my favourites are the wild daffodils, or really narcissi. The first is the pale yellow Angel Tear's, a wonderful name befitting its drooping, nodding tear-shaped flower (Edited comment: Brians Banks has just sent me this: In 1888 a British plant collector used a boy called Angel to clamber up a steep rocky bank to collect bulbs of this plant. The weather was hot and the boy was cross and apparently he burst into tears. The bulbs were labelled after this event....Reported in "Narcissus, A guide to wild daffodils", by John Blanchard. Pub. Alpine Garden Society. The boy's full name was Angel Gancedo, and the incident took place in the north west of Spain. The British collector was Peter Barr. Story was reported 45 years later by his son in 1933). Ah well, whenever I see this plant again, I shall think of poor Angel Gancedo!

Following on is the bolder Hoop Petticoat Narcissus (see my photo) which can sometimes form carpets on fallow fields, all the flowers pointing in the same direction. In damper areas, Common Jonquil is another narcissus, which is just finishing flowering now.

If the narcissi provide visual delight, then it is impossible to be out on the plains without a constant backdrop of lark song. The most distinctive is that of the Calandra Lark, whose song is crammed full of mimicry of other species: Swallows, Goldfinches and Green Sandpipers, to mention just a few. They are rather gregarious and as soon as one starts singing, others rise from the ground to join-in. Thekla Larks are also renowned for their mimetic songs, not as diverse as that of the Calandra, but more so than the confusingly similar Crested Lark. Like the Calandra, they will rise sometimes to great height, when set against a clear blue sky they can be very difficult to locate. At the edge of the plains, where the open dehesa woodland starts, the sweetest song of all can be heard. The Woodlark too will be airbourne on a sunny morning, although they can also be singing in the middle of the night. Spring flowers and lark song boost one's senses and one's spirits in such an embracing way.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Amazing optics




















My eye caught a movement in the semi-darkness. I could just make out in the dusk that something had landed at the base of a bush, halfway up the cliffside. As I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, my assumption was immediately confirmed. Thanks to an image brighter than my own eyesight and with the magnification offered, I had found the bird that we had been waiting for. Although well past sunset, its shape and cryptic plumage was readily visible. Straightaway I called out "Eagle Owl" and the rest of the group followed my directions to find it. Normally when one considers binoculars for very low-light conditions one looks for as low a magnification as possible, generally seven times (7x). However, the binoculars I was handling were 12x. Now if you ask most experienced birdwatchers what they think of 12x binoculars, hands raise in horror at memories of massive pieces of equipment, barely possible to raise to one's eyes, let alone keep steady, purchased by ill-advised novices who believe that size matters. That would have been my knee-jerk response too. Well, here I was, lucky enough to be taking part in the international launch of Swarovski's new generation of Swarovision binoculars, the amazing EL50 range. For three days some of the world's most influential birders were given the chance to test these new top-quality optics in the field, including the world's two top raptor identification experts: Dick Forsman from Finland and William Clark from the USA, the co-founder of the British Birdfair Tim Appleton and the founder of the World Series of Birding, Peter Dunne. My good friend Godfried Schreur, a guide like me based in Extremadura, and I were responsible for taking the group (see Godfried's photo attached) to a range of different habitats, offering opportunities to test the new binoculars under varying conditions, with a particular (but not exclusive) focus on birds of prey. The birds did not let us down....the white-leading edge of the wing of Spanish Imperial Eagle gleaming in the sun, thousands of Pintail, Shoveler and Common Crane, a hunting Merlin, the spring's first Garganey, both species of sandgrouse feeding in a field, Great Bustards flying low over our heads, a Great Spotted Cuckoo that simply got closer and closer, three Golden Eagles soaring together over the village of Monroy, Lesser Kestrels in glorious evening light in Trujillo.

As for the EL50 binoculars, well simply extraordinary: both the 10x and 12x surpassed our expectations. I could not believe that I was using 12x optics, they were as steady as my own pair of 10 x 42, with an image quality that was truly remarkable...Swarovski have achieved the impossible, again!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Unashamedly anthropomorphic




















Sometimes it is impossible to resist being anthropomorphic...describing animal behaviour in terms of human attitudes and motives. Two incidents last week on the same day, at the same place (indeed minutes of each other) prompted such a lapse! I was with a group of four people, David and Kath from the north of England and Liz and Brian from Wales and we were at the wonderful Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint in the Monfragüe National Park. It is the sort of place where one can easily spend hours, just waiting for birds to arrive, enjoying the magnificent scenery and other wildlife. Angel Tear's Narcissus was coming out into flower near where we stood and an Eagle Owl sat incubating her eggs. We spotted an Otter swimming to a rocky bay with a catfish in its mouth and watched as it clambered up onto a rock to eat it. Then it swam out again to catch another. This caught the attention of a Grey Heron which flew in to stand beside the bay. The Otter returned to the bay and ate its fish whilst the heron watched. Out it swam again. This time the heron was ready for it. As the Otter returned with yet another fish the heron positioned itself at the spot where the Otter was coming up. The heron got ready, crest raised. The Otter appeared, fish in mouth, and took one look at the heron as it to say "look what I've got!", It then deliberately turned its back to the heron and sat there eating its fish...one could imagine the heron scowling. Off the Otter went again and soon returned with another fish. This time the heron was more aggressive and stood above the Otter lunging at it with its long bill. The Otter, fish in mouth, stayed in the water, popping up and down as the heron lunged "you can't get me!". The fishy commotion attracted another piscivore as a Kingfisher arrived and sat on a twig surveying the Otter and heron from above. All three were in the same field of view of the telescope...a chamber of horrors if one was a fish!

As we were enjoying this scene a Raven called and approached the cliff above us. I love Ravens..they have real personality and this one certainly had attitude! It landed barking at a Griffon Vulture, standing several times bigger than the Raven. The cheeky chappy Raven looked up at the vulture and the vulture peered down at the Raven. The Raven shifted from one foot to another, looking at the vulture and calling as if to say "Who are you looking at? Want to do something about it?" It was easy to imagine the huge Griffon Vulture sighing as it looked down.."you and whose army?"

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Winter gatherings






















Spring-like weather last week has given way to bitingly cold easterly winds. Despite there being clumps of wild narcissus in flower in sheltered places and some almond blossom, we are still in winter here. Despite the arrival of House Martins and some Swallows, and even a Great Bustard starting some tentative paces in its courtship display, the birds too still have a winter feel about them. Hard weather in central Europe has brought an invasion of Goosanders to Spain and two have even reached Extremadura, for the first time ever. I saw a female swimming on the river running through the Monfragüe National Park last Sunday. But the most striking feature of birds in winter are the sheer numbers. Yesterday we watched a big flock of two or three hundred Corn Bunting rising from a stubble field as a male Merlin attacked. It had arrived almost un-noticed, mimicking a Mistle Thrush with a low gliding flight interspersed with rapid flaps. Then it accerated and dashed through the rising buntings,twisting and turning, swerving upwards. It did not manage to take a bunting - I am sure had we not been there, it would have dived for a second attempt. At the weekend I took part in a national survey of winter roosts of Herons and Egrets. A tiny clump of rather undistinguished willows in a tiny gravel pit, beside a road has been a roosting site for Cattle Egret, close to one of my favourite birding routes. I arrived late afternoon. There was nothing in the trees and just half a dozen egrets were feeding around some sheep. As the sun set, parties of Cattle Egrets started to arrive from all directions, mostly flying low and direct, some coming in from greater height and then tumbling down to land. They gathered on a small hummock next to the trees (see the photo) before taking some mysterious cue which made them take off and then literally stream into the trees, which become something of a swarming white, squawking mass. I estimated somewhere between 2250 and 2400 Cattle Egrets had arrived, along with over a hundred Little Egret and a single Glossy Ibis, which is a very unusual winter record. As the results came in from across the province, it became clear that this roost was by far and away the largest.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Le grand duc


























There is something magnificently apt in the French name for the Eagle Owl - the Grand Duke - an aristocratic aloofness, mystery and power. I certainly sensed this yesterday evening, in the dusk after sunset, in a perfect still calm with the moon and Jupiter starting to shine above me. The first bats had emerged and the last vultures had reached their roost. There was silence. Then, almost inaudible, a muffled "oohu". The next call was louder, more resonent, appearing to come from the dark rocky massif in front of me, the gorge creating a perfect acoustic arena. Then another call, quickly followed by another. Clearly I was now listening to two birds calling to each other. Instinct told me to scan the top of the cliff, where the sharp crisp boundary between the dark rock and the evening sky was visible. And there it was, close to the highest point of all, a new shape that had not been there a few minutes earlier: a large body, rounded head and long "ear-tufts" sometimes sticking out horizontally, sometimes just catching the slightest wisp of a breeze. It slowly moved its head. Its mate was not visible perched, but obviously had been nearby because as I watched, the second bird appeared in flight and headed due south, making a long silent glide into the distance, its wingspan as large as a Grey Heron's. Its mate stayed put and was silent for a few minutes, before it gave a more nasal barking call, its body tilting forward as it did so. This told me that this was the female. She stopped and then took off, but unlike the her mate, flying in my direction, overhead and then landing on the rocks behind me. There she stood for a short while before taking off again and gliding off to the east.

Eagle Owls are top predators with a huge variety of prey including hares, Roe Deer fawns and buzzards. Here in Extremadura they are quite common and widespread, although no one really has a good idea of the population size, which is estimated at anywhere between 400 to 800 pairs. Although the call can be quite far-carrying, it is also easily swamped by other sounds such as traffic and the calling each winter evening does not usually last very long, so detecting Eagle Owls is not as easy as one might imagine. The attached photo was taken in the spring by a guest of ours,David Irven.

Yesterday evening there was no doubt, however, who the Le Grand Duc of the terrain was, staking out its territory from its lofty vantage point and challenging the silence with its haunting call.