Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Connections and reconnections

Pygmy Owl in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey)

Extremadura lies in the south-western corner of Europe, with depopulated rural communities and an extraordinary diversity of habitats, many with the dimensions of landscapes, holding globally important populations of certain species of birds. Last week, I visited Belarus in the north-eastern corner of Europe, thinly populated too, with landscape-scale ecosystems, also critically important for certain species. It was a journey which became almost a pilgrimage, a discovery of connections and significant personal reconnections.
Water meadows of Pripyat River, Belarus (Martin Kelsey)

My visit focused on three landscapes, all very different from anything I can encounter on my home turf in Spain. The first was the extensive water meadows of the Pripyat River, close to the small town of Turov in southern Belarus. Sometimes the river was visible, sometimes not, but always water was in view. Earlier in the year the river will have spilled over, creating a vast shallow lake, but now at the start of June, the waters had retreated to the meandering braids of the river, to old drainage channels and to shallow patches in the low-lying fields. What the river had left behind were lush water meadows. These used to be cut for hay later in the year and used as a grazing marsh, but many have suffered degrees of encroachment by willow scrub as farming practices slowly change. The conservation organisation, APB-BirdLife Belarus, organises volunteer camps to keep the meadows open, as the habitat they provide is home to a host of evocative species. I stood with Dzmitry Vintchevski on a small raised bank, looking towards meadows, just across from the muddy-sided channel in front of me. There was a constant sound and a visual sensation of waves as everywhere I looked birds were rising and falling, a medley of motion. Black-tailed Godwits and Common Redshanks were bustling in the sky. In the middle distance, White-winged, Black and Whiskered Terns lolled up and down like gentle lapping water and gave me the only clue that another channel lay beyond this body of lush grass. Common and Little Terns took more purposeful direct flight. From time to time there were more intense flurries of activity as waders mobbed a passing Hooded Crow. On the muddy margin close to us, a Terek Sandpiper bobbed its way along the water's edge, appearing lop-sided and unbalanced with its long, slightly up-turned bill but rather short legs. Closing my eyes, I absorbed the sounds: a rasping Corncrake pitched against the strident, clean calls of the waders.
Azure Tit (Martin Kelsey)

Along an embankment, we entered the shade of some willows. A Thrush Nightingale sang from a tangle below us, whilst beside a small, wooden house and its vegetable plot with rows of potatoes and strawberries a Common Rosefinch gave long, tuneful notes. This was where I had one of the top encounters of my visit. As a child, looking through the plates in a bird book, certain species caught the imagination more than others. Close to a very familiar species, a Blue Tit, was an extraordinarily exotic-looking bird. With broadly similar patterning as a Blue Tit, its plumage was essentially reduced to pure white and different shades of blue, giving its name - the Azure Tit. It became a dream bird, unattainable as its range lay beyond the Iron Curtain. Now, on a slender willow twig arrived this breathtakingly stunning bird, my first Azure Tit. It was far more strikingly beautiful than the book illustrations suggested. Much of the body was the purest of white, which marked too the outer feathers of the tail, which spread like a vivid beacon. Much of the blue was the tone of a summer sky, darkening on the wings and there forming a white-bordered panel. Longer-tailed than a Blue Tit, its wings shimmered as its mate approached. We had stumbled across these mythical birds and so doing, discovered that they were building a nest, entering a narrow crevice in a fruit tree bordering the cottage garden. We stood for more than an hour watching them, as they seemed completely oblivious to our presence. Indeed the only interspecific behaviour we saw is when they drove off a comparatively dowdy-looking Blue Tit.
Azure Tit (Martin Kelsey)

The next landscape was also wet, but mire habitat rather than water meadow. Here, at the Sporovsky Reserve, I stood with Viktar Fenchuk as the sun was setting, The short sedge growth barely reached our knees. Scattered across the expanse of this sedge fenland were iris stems, bearing their yellow flag flowers. We started to hear a short rattling sound, culminating with squeaky flourishes. I had waited many years to hear this...the song of Aquatic Warbler. As darkness fell, so others started to sing. I was anxious to get a view of the bird itself, and it did not take me long to find one close by, singing from an iris stem high above the sedge layer. It perched bolt upright, its bill wide open as it produced its rattle, its distinctive head pattern with a pale crown stripe and boldly marked back. Soon I had found another, also using a clump of irises to lift it into view. This is a compellingly fascinating bird on so many levels. Of the Acrocephalus group of warblers, it is remarkable in having no pair bond at all.  Females alone  care for the young, which may well have been sired by several different males. Females will be choosing males not on the basis of their performance as diligent fathers, but rather hoping to ensure sexy sons.

Aquatic Warblers were once so common in central Europe that they were called the sparrows of the fens in Germany, but are now probably the rarest and most threatened European passerine. Their stronghold is Belarus, but remarkably it was not until about twenty years ago that they were even known to be breeding in the country. Their conservation has been spearheaded by APB BirdLife Belarus and indeed the species has been the driver of much conservation effort there. Scrub encroachment was traditionally kept at bay by the cutting of the sedge as forage, but now to ensure survival of the open sedge mire, APB bought a special sedge-cutting tractor.
Song time for Aquatic Warblers: dusk at Sporovsky (Martin Kelsey)

As the light faded, the Aquatic Warbler song increased in intensity, the vibrations of Common Snipe drumming overhead soothed like a massage, a Corncrake scraped. We then started hearing a quiet crackling sound, like paper rustling, along with a bizarre, high-pitched disembodied wavering. Suddenly two birds flew up from the sedge in a vertical head-to-head and then flew a short circuit in pursuit. Their white tail corners seemed charged with brilliance as they banked ahead of us. They were lekking Great Snipe - choosing like the Aquatic Warblers nightfall for their seduction.

Great Grey Owl at Vyanaschanski Forest (Martin Kelsey)

My journey culminated in the great forest of the Belavejskaya Puscha on the border with Poland, extending into the neighbouring country under the name Bialowieza Forest. The Belavejskaya Puscha National Park itself covers over 150,000 ha, although the Biosphere Reserve covers a full 216,000 ha (40% of Belarus is forest-covered). It is described as the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, but human activities (selective felling, hunting) have created some impact over the centuries. My childhood awareness of this forest came from documentaries about this sole refuge of European Bison and then as a graduate student I knew the great Polish ornithologist Tomasz Wesolowski who has spent his career studying the bird community of the forest there. I became fascinated with the differences between bird ecology in that great forest compared with the well-studied English woodlands. In terms of species diversity and the role of predation it was more akin to the bird communities in tropical forests.

Giant oak tree in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey)

My two and half days of exploring the Belavejskaya Puscha bestowed many impressions. First, the forest was much more varied than I had imagined. I moon-walked on the bouncy surface of a raised bog, fringed by birch. There were forests dominated by huge spruces, others by pines whose bark had the texture of pangolin scales, hornbeams were the survivalists against browsing deer. Most breathtaking were the huge oaks, well over a hundred feet in height and centuries old, whose trunks were as straight as pillars. But equally significant was the amount of dead wood, moss-covered trunks lying criss-crossed on the forest floor and leaning against brethren. A million niches for invertebrates and vertebrates alike. I had never seen tree gaps like this away from tropical forest, where a forest giant had fallen, bringing down other trees with it, gashing open the canopy to bring in light. A whole micro-community of saplings and shrubs rush to fill the gap. The oak groves were especially rich in bird life: a constant sound of song from Wood Warblers, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. I was there when the Great Spotted Woodpeckers (one of the arch predators of woodland birds) had noisy young in their hole nests and the density of this species was extraordinary. But we also came across nest sites of Three-toed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, as well as watching White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers with the thumping drumming of Black Woodpeckers within earshot.

Natural tree gap in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey) 

In open glades we came across groups of Bison, often accompanied by Red Deer and such places were wonderful to pause by simply to wait for birds to appear, be they a hunting Lesser Spotted Eagle or a pair of Common Cranes.

Bison and Red Deer Deer in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey)

On my last evening, I stood at dusk at the edge of small lake with the forest behind me. Viktar was with me, with his son Sacha and colleague Nicolay. On a makeshift table there was some rye bread, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese and sausages, with a bottle of local vodka. A pair of Whooper Swans with five cygnets sidled away from us and a roding Woodcock passed overhead. At the forest border a River Warbler buzzed, but closer to me an anarchic yet coherent song caused me to stop still in my tracks. I closed my eyes and let my memory intertwine with this fluid improvisation. I had spent three years of my life studying Marsh Warblers (over thirty years ago) but I was carried even further back, to childhood on my grandparents' small farm in Germany and the sound of this song from the willows and nettles beside the reed-filled boundary ditch.

This visit to Belarus had made me think about connections: perhaps the Common Cranes and Song Thrushes I had seen in the forest spend the winter in Extremadura, as do the Lapwings of the Pripyat water meadows. We know that Aquatic Warblers pass through Spain on their way to their newly-discovered winter quarters in West Africa, and friends of mine trapped one in Extremadura last year. In both Belarus and Extremadura habitats fill landscapes and have changed but slowly over the centuries. Even more profoundly, I also became reconnected to vivid moments of childhood and to early dreams. Longings had been satiated in this visit, even a reconnection to some lost folk memory perhaps, embraced by the song of waders and Corncrakes, to a time when all places seemed full of birds.

I am indebted to APB BirdLife Belarus for making the arrangements for my visit and finding me truly excellent and knowledgeable local guides and experts. For anyone thinking of visiting this wonderful country, I would strongly recommend contacting APB and asking them to organise a tour for you. Not only will you benefit from the best local knowledge, but you will be directly contributing to the work that APB does to protect the birds and habitats of Belarus. If you are interested, please contact Valeryia Sashko  valeryia.sashko.apb@gmail.com or birdingbelarus@gmail.com  



Friday, 19 May 2017

Rolling rolling rolling

Roller (John Hawkins)

Dropping from its perch, the bird performs a low gliding arc, the presumption of which will be a sweeping ascent to another position, further along the line of electricity cables beside the road. Contrarian as ever, the bird breaks from this smooth curve, rises and then enters a chaotic, swerving motion. The wings appear yanked forcibly in opposing directions, causing the bird to wobble dramatically, widely spread they reveal a blast of electric blue, of breathtaking intensity, a vibrant contrast to the soft blue that occupies most of the plumage. This rolling action ends as the bird abruptly takes a perch - and it gives us the common name of the species, the Roller. It had joined its mate and they perched close to each other. They embark on a bowing display, heads held aloft, bills pointing almost vertically upwards and then a series of slow heavy nods, as if concluding some weighty discussion. Incongruous to the sophistication of their plumage, the call which accompanies the rolling display is a rudimentary rattling cackle, giving the Spanish name for the species, the "Carraca", where the rolling comes not from the visual display, but from the Castillian rolling of the double "rr".

Fancy nestboxes have been bequested to these birds, each fastened to the wooden telegraph poles that bear the cables beside the road. We have found a safe place to park and we sit and watch for over an hour. The pairs of Rollers show a lot of bonding. The slightly more brightly-coloured male drops from the perch and makes a brief hover above the blonding grasses. Once again the vivid blue wings grab our attention as it drops to the ground, becoming submerged in the swaying vegetation. Its disappearance is momentary, as it quickly rises, carrying in its powerful black bill what looks like a cricket. It perches beside the waiting female, sidles up to her and feeds her his gift.

The Rollers' real estate is the nest box, and although several pairs are present along this stretch of the road, giving a feel of a colony, the chases between individuals indicate strongly held territories within this area. There is a surfeit of boxes, many more than the Rollers could possibly occupy, which offers opportunities for other birds. Spotless Starlings jostle beside some, Jackdaws beside others. Through the entrance hole of another, I receive the cross stare of a Little Owl. But from the behaviour of our pair of Rollers it seems that they have secure possesion of their box. The female sits on the ledge, the male above her. They look secure and established. And then something unexpected happens.

Roller (John Hawkins)

The female has popped inside the box and cannot be seen. The male comes down to the ledge and starts calling in a loud and fiercely agitated fashion into the hole. We assume that we are witnessing some domestic dispute, but the haranguing continues with the male retreating to the top of the box as the female emerges. She is not alone. She is physically pulling out, by the scruff of her neck as it were, a female Lesser Kestrel. The kestrel protests noisily, but to no avail as she is dragged clear of the box. The Roller continues to pull at the kestrel as they tumble together into the grass, the very same patch where just minutes earlier, the male Roller had collected his nuptial gift for his mate. To offer support, he has plunged down as well and for a moment all one can see is the expanse of sheer blue plumage, whilst the furious kestrel sits with her wings spread clumsily over the grass. She then seizes the opportunity to flee, and with a panicked flight departs, chased for a few metres by the dominant Rollers. Back they return to the box, resuming once more their positions: one on the entrance ledge and the other on the cable. Had we arrived at that moment only, or indeed had left five minutes earlier, we would not have witnessed this extraordinary interaction.


Sunday, 30 April 2017

A bee-eater with a difference

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Judd Hunt)
I look forward to late April each year when the birding company Shetland Wildlife sends out a group to spend a week's holiday in Extremadura. They stay at our home, Casa Rural El Recuerdo, and I share the role of leading the group with my good friend Judd Hunt. I had not known Judd before we met about ten years ago in the Monfragüe National Park, but it transpired that we had a great number of mutual birding friends and we both birded in our adolescence in South Wales. I left the region in the late 1970s, but Judd lives there still and I always enjoy a catch-up with him on how the birds (and birders) are doing there now. Judd is not only a wonderful person, he is also a great guide and superb birder. He gained great acclaim last year when he found Britain's first Siberian Accentor.

It was the final full day of this year's tour and in the latter part of the week the weather had changed quite dramatically from hot and settled conditions to being cold and windy, with rain (although a huge respite from the devastating drought that we have suffered this spring). We normally take the group high into the edge of the Gredos Mountains on the last day, to look for Western Bonelli's Warblers singing in the deciduous Pyrennean oak and Ortolan Buntings returning to their territories on the moorlands of broom scrub above the tree-line. But with the forecast of low cloud, a fierce easterly wind and showers our plans were quickly changed.

We spent the morning on the plains west of Trujillo, having the best views so far of Great Spotted Cuckoo and enjoying once more the medley of larks, with some Pin-tailed Sandgrouse thrown in. Then, after our picnic, eaten in the shelter of our vehicles, I suggested that we headed south-east to visit a pool which earlier in the week had delighted us with its show of Collared Pratincoles. A few waders had been present which would also be interesting to look at again, just in case other species had arrived. Struggling against a head-on wind, a quick scan showed that the pratincoles had gone, but the variety of waders had been enriched with the presence of a Temminck's Stint, two Curlew Sandpipers, three Sanderling and a Spotted Redshank, amongst the couple of dozen of Little Stint and Dunlin already there.

It was now mid-afternoon and pleased with the selection of birds we had found, I considered how best to make use of our remaining time. As we had driven through the rice-growing area I had noticed that some of the fields were now flooded, announcing that moment in the rice-growing calendar when the the spring landscape of parched, dry bare-earth transforms to a vast wetland as the rice gets sown. It would be worthwhile driving through this area in case we found places where there may be more waders feeding. I decided to take a short-cut through an area of dehesa, along a dirt track which would take us onto the rice fields. That track I knew would give us some good opportunities to see and photograph birds such as Woodlark and potentially Turtle Dove.

As we turned onto the track, I led the way and after just a couple of hundred metres stopped to watch a small group of Bee-eaters that were coming to settle on the fence in front of us. The bad weather was forcing them to prolong their perching and make fewer foraging sallies for bees. We watched two in front of us, their heads facing the wind, making minor adjustments with the line of the bodies to ensure balance. As they flew off, I drove on to let Judd and his group take up position to enjoy them whilst we slowly continued along the track. The track rose and descended and I stopped to wait for Judd to arrive, as we could now longer see his vehicle.  Suddenly my walkie-talkie crackled but the incoming message from Judd was inaudible. I replied "Can you repeat?". My mobile phone rang and I struggled to get it out of my pocket. It was Judd with what turned out to be a wonderful understatement "Hi Martin, I think I have a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater".

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Judd Hunt)
I reversed up the track until reaching a place to turn and parked up directly in front of Judd. He was pointing to my right and we checked the wires and trees: nothing. Carefully I got out and went over to Judd: "It's on the ground". And there it was, sitting huddled and rather miserable-looking, on a clod of earth, a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. We managed to get everyone in the team to see it and cameras worked overtime. This was the first time this species had ever been seen in Extremadura (and only the ninth time in Spain - see the other records here) so I sent a photo directly to some other birders in the region to tell them of the find. Judd described to me how he had been photographing the Bee-eaters and suddenly in the viewfinder of his camera appeared one which looked all green.  There was a bubble of excitement which rose as simultaneously we obtained as much documentary evidence as possible, whilst at the same time simply absorbing this unique moment. What struck me whilst looking at the bird was the sheer size of its bill, looking longer that the length of the head.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Martin Kelsey)

We watched until the bird flew off, moving further into the dehesa with the other bee-eaters. There are perhaps a million Bee-eaters in Extremadura - no one really knows - and they can be found almost anywhere. What were the odds of finding the one group in the region to which this rarity had become attached? Pure serendipity to take that particular track, along which we did indeed have some splendid views of Turtle Dove, although we never did see Woodlark. That is birding.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Encounters

Bonelli's Eagle (John Hawkins)

The Pin-tailed Sandgrouse slowly trundle around on the sparsely vegetated slope. They are distant but show well with that diamond-honed crystal light bequeathed to us during the short space between sunrise and the first vibrations of heat. Broad-shouldered, but small-headed, they peck at unseen objects, sometimes pausing to peer around, revealing the blast of orange-yellow on the breast above the pure white of their bellies. Suddenly they rise as one, giving a raucous alarm which seems utterly incongruous against the song of the Calandra Larks around us, a cry which would fit better on some coastal island or sea-cliff, gull or even auk-like. Showing remarkably dynamic flight, they lift as one, swirl and rise, becoming lost to our view against the clear blue sky. At the zenith of their ascent, the flock becomes a pyrotechnic, seemingly exploding like an animate firework, breaking into twos and threes and scattering in all directions. We become surrounded by the calls but the attempt to locate and watch the flying birds becomes almost futile. The birds have succeeded in completely confusing our senses, we simply do not know which way to look.

On this occasion we are not the cause of the sandgrouses' panic and response, merely bystanders, witnesses. What drove this eruption is an immature Peregrine which wheels high and then glides in a slow descent. It too has had its senses bewildered by this deliberate impulse by the sandgrouse. It lands in the very same field that had been occupied by them and sits upright on a small stone to regain its composure. This bare gradient clings onto its lure for the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse however, for within minutes we watch the return of three clusters, about ten birds in all. Our telescopes pan from the Peregrine to the sandgrouse, now getting back to their quiet foraging and then back to the falcon.  But astonishingly we are soon no longer confronted with this choice since within the single field of view, we can watch the Peregrine standing proud whilst within just a few feet of him, the now nonchalant sandgrouse feed.

The object of their erstwhile fear and panic has transformed to a harmless onlooker. A Peregrine standing on the ground presents no threat, it has been disarmed.  The vigilants in the group pass the raptor without a second glance and then peer skyward, searching with a wit honed by evolution for the sign of a hunting raptor or the sound of other birds in alarm. Within the space of just minutes two separate encounters with the same individual hunter have elicited from the sandgrouse two contrasting reactions.

Our patience and willingness to stay put and wait had rewarded us richly, as it did a few days later. Early afternoon found us standing in front of a magnificent cliff, with aged wrinked rocks patterned by lichen blemishes.  But it had been slow, with few distractions apart from the effortless Griffon Vultures and some distant Alpine Swifts. But it pays to stay put. At last, that most evocative of eagles, the Bonelli's, drifted across the rock face. It is a species that appears without warning, more an ambush than an encounter. The complex patterned underwing with the blackish diagonal band, was shown to perfection against the etched quartzite backdrop. It gave an idle tussle with a Griffon Vulture as it passed and then rose above the skyline, turning in a wide arc. Nearby, in utter contrast to the eagle's engineered form, wheeled a gangly Black Stork, appearing all appendages: spindly legs hanging downward, the long red bill bourne by a lithe irridescent neck. But somehow by paddling the blackness of its wings, the stork managed to make a lunge towards the eagle. Ignoring this attempt, the eagle glided effortlessly along the ridge top, finding rest in a perilously-positioned holm oak. Hidden from view it may have been, but the stork had watched the eagle's passage and now made more composed elegant dives towards the crown of the tree, a bravura of mobbing before making its own departure from the scene.

Great Bustards (John Hawkins)

These encounters had offered drama, but let me relate another moment when we had also been silent witnesses, when the birds had been unaware of our presence, portraying a moment of charm and intimacy. It was another morning on the plains, we stood for an hour immersed in the courtship dances of lekking Great Bustards. The rivalry of the males had reached a peak and two individuals in particular, which had been staring at each other, head-to-head, started making lunges. This excited the other males present, causing more distant birds to charge over as spectators in expectation of what might erupt as a full bloodied-fight. One very large male that had displaying on its own, rushed over, its still inflated orange neck wobbling from side to side like a  monstrously obese belly. The flurry of attacks between the two rivals climaxed in sufficient physical contact for a richly patterned tail feather to drop in a see-saw motion to the ground. As the battle shifted, with the prancing males edging each other up the hill, the fallen feather distracted one of the spectators. He paused and looked down. There followed what can only be described as curiosity or even play. He picked up the feather in his bill and let it drop. As it settled, he picked it up again, released it and watched it fall to the ground. This action was repeated twice more before he strode away. For me the moment was precious, a tiny interlude, an encounter between the male Great Bustard, a feather and an unseen observer.

Monday, 3 April 2017

orchid trickery

Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) Martin Kelsey

Spring comes tumbling in from the middle of March onwards in Extremadura, an avalanche of new birds: migrants fresh from a trans-Saharan crossing, busy and expectant. Indeed by early April I have had sightings of almost all of our summer visitors, apart from just a handful of notoriously later species. The few remaining winter visitors suddenly look out of place - Meadow Pipits appearing even more nervous and jerky than ever.

This is also peak orchid season in Extremadura, with the highest numbers of species findable that are in full and spectacular bloom. I can find orchids in flower from January to June, but late March and early April are when certain spots on the isolated strips of lime-rich soil become places of paradise. Few of these sites can be fairly described as scenic treats. Yes, I know of locations where one will find special orchids in gorgeous meadows surrounded by wild olives and imposing crags, on a slope affording views of eighty kilometres or more. But many of these sites are quite unprepossessing: scrappy corners of derelict land, litter-strewn roadside verges, thin weary almond orchards. I celebrate the presence of orchids in such places, a testament to their determination and mystery.

The name Orchid comes from the Ancient Greek órkhis, which means testicle, on account of the shape of the two tubers shown by some species. One of these tubers stores food for the plant, whilst the other is where the spring growth will occur. Orchids in our climate spend most of the year underground, using the warmth and rainfall of spring for growth, flowering and building up reserves for the following year. It is underground that the wind-blown and almost microscopic seeds encounter the fungi without which they cannot germinate, an intimate life-sustaining relationship invisible to our gaze.

The most intriguing and beguiling of them all are the bee orchids, members of the genus Ophrys. Unlike other orchids and other insect-pollinated plants where the pollinator visits through promise of a nectar reward, the bee orchids use blatant trickery. An extraordinary process of evolution has resulted in the flower mimicking the scent and to some extent the shape and colours of a female insect to bring the male in to land, vainly attempt to mate with it and then to leave with a dusting of pollen. The scent produced will be unique to a single species of insect, on which that orchid will thus depend, luring the male insect with the promise of sex.

Now is the time to see almost all of Extremadura's Ophrys orchids. A few, like the Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) are widespread and common, popping up with their joyful clown-like visages in meadows and along drovers' trails (see photo at top of post).

Some like the Early Spider Orchid (O.incubacea) and stunningly-patterned Woodcock Orchid (O.scolopax) can grow as tall slender plants, with flowers spaced along the stem.

Early Spider Orchid (O.incubaceaMartin Kelsey

Woodcock Orchid (O.scolopaxMartin Kelsey


















The black and yellow of the Yellow Bee Orchid (O.lutea) tricks the eye in Golden Oriole-fashion, making the plant surprisingly cyptic.

 Yellow Bee Orchid (O.lutea) Martin Kelsey
The highly localised Bumblebee Orchid (O.bombyliflora) is so small and inconspiquous that one wonders whether its rarity is more about the challenge to simply detect it.

Bumblebee Orchid (O.bombylifloraMartin Kelsey

The commoner Mirror Orchid (O.speculum), also small in stature, has a bizarrely shaped flower when seen in close-up.

Mirror Orchid (O.speculumMartin Kelsey

Orchid taxonomy is both complex and fluid. Hybrids are frequent and some species produce variations in colour and patterning that both excite and puzzle the aficionados. Following locally accepted species, I have a special fondness for the Sombre Orchid group: O. fuscus, O. bilunulata and O.dyris. They stand modestly, as if awaiting your discovery, and so easy to overlook if they merely face away from your gaze. The Sombre group continues to yield more discoveries in Extremadura and more debate.

Sombre Orchid group O. fuscus Martin Kelsey

O. bilunulata Martin Kelsey

O.dyris Martin Kelsey
This Ophrys peak subsides as the ground dries and the temperature rises. In their place our focus shifts to the Serapias tongue orchids (also a fest of discovery and taxonomic challenges) as well as species at higher, milder altitudes. But the bee orchids have a swansong as I found, retracing my steps on a favourite path, weeks after my previous visit. Dessicated spikes that had bourne orchid flowers poked through withered brittle grass. I carefully walked through the crisp undergrowth until jolted by surprise with the mocking face, or so it looked, on a clean and fresh Bee Orchid (O.apifera).

Bee Orchid (O.apifera) Martin Kelsey

But nearby was something even more special. Thought to be unique to this hillside beside the town of Almaráz grows what is considered a form of Bee Orchid (O. apifera var. almaracenis), a deep blush, highly pigmented and thriving at precisely that time of year when its other cogeners were slowly shutting down.
Almaráz Bee Orchid (O. apifera var. almaracenis) Martin Kelsey

I left puzzled at what made such a distinct form to be described as a variation rather than true species, baffled by taxonomy. I wondered too whether the male insects tricked by such a distinctive-looking form would be the same as with the regular apifera. Had anyone analysed the scents produced by them? The Ophrys chapter had closed for the year, but questions that I could never answer remained.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Heading north-east

Migrating Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)

I can be anywhere in central Extremadura in late February or early March and if the weather is fine, there will be a moment late morning when I will stop what I am doing and gaze south-westward. My pause will have been demanded by an approaching, but still distant sound of cranes. I strain my eyes as I seek engagement with the flock, but experience reminds me I just need to grant myself a few seconds of patience and the birds will materialise. Mirage-like, the flock appears as a chain, with the composite birds linked in a line, or sometimes swept into a skein. As they get closer, so it becomes clearer that I am watching perhaps two hundred individual birds, but still they hold a meta-form. That is until an abrupt and noisy transmutation occurs, the shape disaggregates and the birds, chaotically at first, start spiralling. They have discovered a thermal and the benefits of lift outweigh their momentary halt in progress. Above me the flock, now several hundred metres higher than before, then undergoes a further metamorphosis, regaining its structure and composition, the blather of trumpeting subsides and with a envigourated sense of purpose the group proceeds. Their direction is a perfect north-east heading and all that remains for me to do is to cherish the moment as I watch the birds disappear into the blue.

There is nothing quite like seeing migration as it is actually happening. I had always guessed, given their orientation, they must be heading directly to Gallocanta, the well-known refuge for cranes in Aragón in north-east Spain, where they rest before the more tricky crossing of the Pyrenees. I had calculated too that a mid-morning departure from Extremadura could enable them to reach Gallocanta by evening, a distance of more than 500 kms. But it is only with the advent of satellite tracking that have we come to understand the magnificence of this migration - and it is staggering. Let me share with you the on-going story of a Lithuanian crane which spent this winter in Extremadura.

Casas de Don Pedro is a small town just east of the main rice-growing area in centre of Extremadura, at a transition between a vast expanse of dehesa and the steppe-like plains of La Serena. It lies close to the edge of the Orellana Reservoir: the biggest in the Guadiana basin in Extremadura with a surface area of over 5000 hectares, providing water mainly for the rice fields in the province of Badajoz. From the small bay of the reservoir close to the town, where there is always an interesting array of wintering birds, including sometimes local rarities like Little Gull, Greater and Lesser Scaup, one can see to the east the Sierra de las Golindrinas (the Sierra of the Swallows). I have stood beside the reservoir there and watched as, in the space of a few minutes a pair of Bonelli's Eagles cross the dehesas between the mountains and the bay, to ambush dozing Shoveler.

It was from close to Casas de Don Pedro where this Lithuanian crane set off with others at 10.25 on 28th February. By 17.53 that same day it had reached Gallocanta - a journey of about seven and a half hours. According to the Michelin routeplanner, the fastest recommended route by car would take me as long - not including stops. Since I could not have made that journey non-stop, the crane would have beaten me to Gallocanta by a very clear margin. But it is not just the capacity of cranes to migrate long distances with few breaks that is amazing, but also the speed of their flight when the conditions are good. A few days ago a young Swedish crane was recorded crossing the Pyrenees at a speed of 155 kmph!

Migrating Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)

Gallocanta is a remarkable stopover point for cranes, with birds arriving in the evenings to rest and feed-up, whilst others depart in the mornings. On the day that our Lithuanian bird left Extremadura there had been 80,000 cranes already gathered there. But our bird simply needed an overnight stay, because the following morning it left Gallocanta to cross the Pyrenees and enter France. It continued to fly a further 700 kms, reaching the Loire by the morning of 2nd March. Taking just two hours rest, it then travelled east, crossing Germany and reaching Hungary during the early hours of 3rd March, pausing to rest just before dawn close to the Danube, after a leg of 1150 kms. As I write, thanks to the tracking monitored by www.movebank.org, and the information shared by the Common Crane Working Group I know that this bird is now resting in the Hortobagy National Park in eastern Hungary.

My winter landscape is shaped by cranes. I am never far from their sound. Their departure affects me in Extremadura, I feel bereft. Whilst the Lithuanian bird was entering eastern France, just two days after leaving Extremadura, my eyes tracked another group of cranes as I stood beside the Belén Plains near Trujillo. These cranes too were travelling north-eastwards, just embarking on their journey. As I followed them into the distance, I was distracted by a hovering Lesser Kestrel. It was a splendid male, with mother-of-pearl-toned underwings and a clean rusty-red back. It plunged, wings held together above the body, disappearing into a swathe of long grass. It emerged carrying a mole cricket which it decapitated on the wing. What acuity of vision to spot the insect in such tall and floppy vegetation! It was not alone. There were another twenty-one Lesser Kestrels, hovering in a loose group over the grasslands. These birds too had completed a journey, reaching us from West Africa. A journey, research tells us, that would have taken just four or five days.

Male Lesser Kestrel (John Hawkins)

My skyscape that day was criss-crossed by international arrivals and departures. My presence was that of a peripheral bystander, watching them in silence. They, however, were profoundly sculpting my very comprehension of  this transition. As the cranes had defined my winter, so the Lesser Kestrels will describe my spring.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Winter tones

Spanish Sparrows (Martin Kelsey)
Colours this back-end of winter are broad-brush. This is a legacy of a long drought with frosty mornings which have stifled the arrival of the early narcissus or sand-crocuses. Only in the last week have the Atlantic-grey clouds rolled in, soaking the ground. I can sense that colour is just around the corner, poised in greeting. But in the meantime though, I can step back and absorb colour as a wash, a fusion of hues.  I stop and take in the soft, gentle beige of the dry long straps of Typha leaves, each one curiously buckled at a similar point on its length, so that their tapering tips sweep downward. Perched on these folds are Spanish Sparrows. Others are lined-up on the rod-like stems that once bore the "bulrush" spike. Most are females, sitting hunched against a fierce wind which forces many to close their eyes. Their feathers are puffed, exaggerating their thickset demeanour. Their plumage matches that of their perches, an unexceptional beige, stroked on the flanks by whispers of grey and on their mantles with dark-centred, pale edged flanges.

The males strike a different pose.  They seem edgy and alert, sleeker and vigilant. Their plumage shows the miracle of wear and tear. They had moulted after breeding last year and every new body or contour feather had a fringe of soft, gossamer-like trim. Thus, at the start of autumn, they carried a dowdy look, hoary and unremarkable, unshaven. Subjected to winter elements and brushing against rough stalks as they plunged to feed in the stubble fields, each feather was coarsely abraded. Cinderella-like, the sparrows had undergone a transformation and they stood today proud. Emerging now, as these feathers wear, is a brashness of spring, the uniform of competitive struggle. Under the layers, slowly revealed, is a deep chocolate hood, a neat black eye-line and bib, set against a shock of white on the cheeks and above the eye. The abrasion still has a few more weeks to complete its work, but already I can see the rumours of dark stripes on the underparts which will strengthen and blacken.

Their patience with my presence had also become worn and with a swirl the flock siphons off, twisting in a minature murmuration to adorn another Typha clump further away, beige again on beige.

Nearby is a winter gathering site of Stone Curlew and I go to check the birds there. Partly submerged by swathes of dry grey stems, they stand motionless. They have a forlorn resigned look, inactive, statuesque. A Marsh Harrier wavers over them unannounced and this triggers an instinctive flight-response. A surge of adrenalin sets them on a short run and then they take off, a flock of surprisingly long-winged, long-necked birds, 35 of them in all.  They do not gain much height before sweeping round in a glide and bouncing down to land again, with a few quick steps to slow their momentum. They freeze, the whole group facing the same way, each one a profile, but collectively sending out a sense of determination. Then in a wonderfully choreographed moment, they simultaneously, as one, crouch, to become fixed in a half-standing, half-sitting pose. It was as if they had all been wired together.



Friday, 27 January 2017

Northward bound

Black-tailed Godwits on northward migration through Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

It is late afternoon towards the end of January. We are driving slowly along a dirt track between small rice fields. In some there are still rows of stubble and family groups of Common Cranes are quietly feeding. A rank of Greylag Geese stick their heads up, periscope-like, as we pass, grey-brown with heavy triangular light orange bills. Most of the fields, however, have already been "mashed" over by tractor, as near as ploughing that you can get in this squelching mud. The result is an expanse of shallow water. Groups of Black-headed Gulls are settled on some of these pools, with their curiously angled necks poised forwards, matching harmoniously their uptilted wing-tips, giving them a dainty demeanour as they bob about, as if they were tip-toeing on the surface.  Many of the fields seem empty, with perhaps a single Green Sandpiper, which freezes as we approach, before erupting in a shock of black and white. However, the next field we come to has action.

Here a pack of over three hundred large waders are clustered. A profusion of dry Typha in the ditch beside us offers concealment and thus we can slowly approach. We watch the birds at close quarters, hidden from their view. A low afternoon winter sun makes the birds glow against the reflected soft blue sky on the water. There is a pleasing hum of activity from the flock. We listen to a gentle murmur of nasal contact calls, soft and reassuring. I smile. The birds have the appearance of having very recently arrived. They are keeping close together. Some are sleeping but most are either preening or busy feeding, their long bills submerged, deep into the ooze, so that the water reaches their faces.  They are Black-tailed Godwits pausing in Extremadura on their journey from West Africa to Holland.

Some are starting to show the russet-orange chests of breeding plumage, but most are still in winter dress. Extremadura is one of the most important late-winter stopover areas for this species as it crosses the Iberian Peninsula. Over recent decades the availability of feeding areas in Extremadura has increased with the development of rice production. The management of the land means that during the period of the peak spring passage (late January to early March) most of the fields are wet and muddy. Tens of thousands of godwits pass through. But their highly gregarious behaviour means that to find them requires considerable searching. The area which has the highest concentration is the the central area of the rice belt in Extremadura, close to the small town of Santa Amalia. There last February we stood and watched a flock of 4000 birds, rising and banking in unison as they moved from one feeding area to the next. The fields they choose to forage in seem to be carefully selected, to the exclusion of adjacent fields that appear to our eyes as identical. Yet there must be something that tells the godwits, from one year to the next, that certain plots have a higher yield than others.

Black-tailed Godwits at Santa Amalia February 2016 (Martin Kelsey)

As I watch the birds I see that at least four are bearing coloured plastic rings on their legs. Black-tailed Godwits are being studied extensively and many are ringed by researchers. The colour-combinations that are recorded will be sent in. I will eagerly await the information that comes back: insights into the individual life-histories of such engaging birds.

Two colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Plain dawn

Winter dawn on the plains (Martin Kelsey)

Mist-grey-toned meadows are spread before me, touched by a hoar frost that had arrived overnight. Only a gentle incline nearby has escaped and looks distinctly lusher green. I muse for a moment about why the frost had not formed there. Had the dry-stone wall beside me offered enough protection from the rolling, heavier, freezing air? There is something almost sinister about the sight of a pre-dawn frost. As we sleep a nocturnal prowler is at large, an invisible slowly moving blanket of cold, gently caressing the folds and hollows of the land.

Behind me are the bold Mooresque-forms of the smooth, rounded granites of the berrocal of Trujillo and I gaze across the seemingly vast plains of Belén, gently undulating as the curves in a piece of silk. To the east, the outline of the Villuercas Mountains appears stark, brittle and monochrome whilst the massif of the Gredos to the north, whose peaks are capped by snow, murmur a soothing pale peach.

A Thekla Lark comes onto the stone wall and gives its inflected pensive call. It stands, plump with its feathers puffed out, hunch-backed against the cold. A hoarse wheezing sound from the bare tree beside it, squeezes from an equally solemn-looking Hoopoe, silhouetted. But it makes me smile, as it takes on a comic pose. Trying to preen its upper breast feathers with its absurdly long bill, it is forced into bizarre contortions, pushing its neck in one direction to try to angle the bill in another. My amusement is abruptly distracted by a blast of light as the sun suddenly edges into view above the Villuercas. On cue, a Red Kite sets out on its early morning foray, a purposeful, direct flight in the cold dawn air, propelled by deep rowing flaps: fifteen and then a glide, fourteen then a glide, seventeen then a glide, its long tail relaxed and level.

It is time to move and I return to the car and taking the narrow road that crosses the plains north-east, drive slowly onward. Swathes of small birds in low bounding flight make passage across a field and as I stop to watch I pick up the twangs of Calandra Larks and the tics of Corn Buntings. Singleton Lapwings are dotted across the terrain, whilst beyond, lined up on a horizon formed by the crest of a rise stand a group of fourteen Great Bustard. They have a perpendicular statuesque form, verticals and horizontals, exaggerated further by their cocked fanned tails.

Stopping whenever the opportunity arises to survey the surroundings from a suitable vantage point, I scan the fields with the telescope, panning right to left and back again. The low sunlight picks up the white shock of Lapwing bellies from a huge distance, I detect the motion of foraging Golden Plover in the dry grey stands of dead thistles. On rock piles, stationary grey forms are revealed to be Little Owls. Onwards I go to another viewpoint to search again.

Eventually I find them, like the distant Lapwing, the shallow sunlight highlighting their white underparts. Otherwise their quiet brown dress would conceal them wonderfully in the remnants of last year's stalks. They too are standing hunched and largely motionless, just occasionally a wing stretches to reveal a surprise of white. This group of Little Bustards comprises twenty-four birds and even though several hundreds of metres away, some are facing the right direction for me to able to count at least eight adult males. Just one of these has started to grow the feathers to produce the striking chevron black and white neck patterns of spring plumage, but the others show a clear divide between brown upper breast and white below, as well as having much less patterned backs than the females and younger birds. I log information about the habitat and location, data to be sent through to SEO/BirdLife for its nationwide winter census of this fast-declining species.

Little Bustard in winter (two males and two females/young birds) (Martin Kelsey) 

My sense of satisfaction of having found this winter group is bittersweet. On 2nd March 2006, close to where I am standing today, I had watched a flock of over 330 birds. Such has been their precipitious decline.