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.


Saturday, 31 December 2016

This winter's tales

Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)
This solstice and yuletide have gifted us a season of frosty mornings, cloudless skies and not a breath of wind. It has been warm enough to lunch outdoors, catching the winter song of Woodlark and the sliding whistling whoops of Spotless Starlings. Yesterday from the terrace of a restaurant giving views across half of Extremadura, we watched two Barn Swallows and a House Martin feeding alongside groups of Crag Martins.  At dusk, against the sound of Little Owls, I start to count the stars as they break into view, slowly at the beginning, but more and more punctuate the sky as the colour drains. Soon I surrender to the futility of the task and to the lure of the log fire.

Waking at seven, the night seems as dark as it will ever be. There is no sign of an eastern glow yet and a feast of constellations is spread above me. These are days to be out and to celebrate abundance. It is mid-winter and at no other time of the year in this part of Extremadura are there so many birds. And this is no better epitomised than by the Common Cranes. Just before Christmas, volunteers across Spain and elsewhere in Western Europe took part in a coordinated count of cranes. My left elbow still aches from a repetitive strain injury caused by the use of my mechanical counter, my index finger pressed its little lever 11,739 times that day, as I registered the swathes of hunched grey-backed Common Cranes as they fed on the stubble fields or as they strode as aparitions through the fading light at a dehesa-bordered lake. My efforts contributed less than nine percent of Extremadura's count. This December a record-breaking total of over 132,000 Common Cranes was counted here. Spain holds the highest number of wintering Common Cranes in the world (nearly a quarter of a million this December) and Extremadura is by far the most important region, with Aragón coming in second with nearly 50,000 birds.

The largest numbers spend most of the winter on the stubble in Extremadura's rice and maize-growing areas, landscapes supporting a spectacular number and diversity of birds. In late afternoon, the low sunlight carries my shadow from the sandy track where I am standing, across a Typha-filled ditch and onto the cropped rows of rice stubble. A Bluethroat curtsies at the edge of a patch of open mud. The path in front of me dramatically changes colour as a thousand Spanish Sparrows erupt from its surface where a scattering of rice grains lay. They murmurate as a fluid, amoeba-like flock, as if enclosed in some membrane, holding the constituent sparrows together as a single life-form. The cause of this furore is quickly obvious, as an immaculately marked male Hen Harrier glides across my view. I am struck by the bold constrasts in its plumage: black, the palest of greys and a white enfused by the crisp afternoon sunshine. There is commotion still as flurries of jerky-flighted Meadow Pipits panic. I turn my attention to the harrier's wake and the view is pierced by its consort, a female Merlin, angular and sharp, a straight dagger of a flight in pursuit of avian prey flushed by its larger companion.

Great Bittern (Wilf Banfield)

I had driven down this same track a few days earlier, accompanied by three birding guests. Just ahead of me I sensed a movement in the vegetation beside the track, a rounded hunched form, the identity of which I could not immediately place. Carefully I drove on a few metres to get level to the place where I guessed the creature was now hiding, a field best described as rice fallow, where open water was broken by clumps of unharvested crop in random patches and clusters of sedges. Just a few feet into this field, standing still, with its body held at a low angle, but with neck and bill frozen vertical was a Great Bittern. It recoiled its neck and took on again the hunched form that I had first seen. With slow but powerful strides it traversed the gap from one tussock to the next, where it resumed its classic bittern-pose. This it sustained for a few seconds before hunching-up again to cross the next gap in the trajectory it sought. Thus it eased itself away from us, calm and collected, until it achieved complete invisibility as perspective merged the patches of tall vegetation into one.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Transformations

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Raymond de Smet)

Daybreak on the plains north of Trujillo and finally the relief of heavy skies and shrouds of rain. Autumn made us wait this year, but as the landscape turned green in the space of a week, my friends' faces have become brighter: a transformation of mood as profound as that of their surroundings. I stand beside a shower of white Serotine Narcissus and look across the field, the gloaming of dawn extended by the overcast sky. Over two hundred Lapwing are evenly spread in front of me, facing the prevailing weather, taking long pauses between their almost mechanical strides. Beyond them, on a gentle rise, are what I first take to be a scatter of rounded stones, but as I struggle to get a better view through the raindrop-splattered telescope, one object shifts position and provides a view of a white belly, so close to the ground it appears to almost to touch it. Others make little shuffling movements and thus the stones transmute to Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a group of forty or more.

Serotine Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

Few birds can match the temperament of the weather than sandgrouse. On such a morning, they crouch huddled, as if wrapping themselves in heavy wool blankets, small-headed, broad-backed, short-legged. In the poor light, the upperparts appear dark greyish-brown, pressing further the imagery of foot soldiers, moping at rest, their cloaks draping to the soggy ground. They trudge, then pause and peck, barely a signal of movement from their forms. But find such a flock when the sun is shining and it is as if the squad of troopers has been promoted. Their upperparts spangle with golden medallions, their wing coverts appear laden with braid and their chests show panels of black-bordered russet-orange, The flock explores the ground with more animated shuffles and occasionally a bird lifts its body up to stretch its wings, flashing the pure-whiteness of its belly.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (John Hawkins)

Ever vigilant and always forsaking tall vegetation where their vision is contained, sandgrouse are nervous. All it takes is the appearance of a Spanish Imperial Eagle slowly flapping in take-off from a nearby roost for the flock to erupt. Their strident gull-like cries seem out of character to their rather dove-like bearing on the ground, but it is a far-carrying and evocatively haunting sound of open expanses. They metamorphose again in flight when we are confronted with a tight flock of surprisingly pointed-winged agile birds which twist and turn on rapid wing beats, rising in unison. Our final reward is yet another change of act, as the flock reaches its highest point and then bursts like a star, shattering into shrapnel with the birds, now in twos or threes, dispersing in all directions on long glides against a clear blue sky, becoming ever more difficult to follow and yet still vocal: a flock that disappears above us before our very eyes.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sierra wanderings


Walk towards the Garganta del Fraile near Serradilla (Martin Kelsey)
The Almonte River is marked, after four months of drought, by a belt of bleached dull grey pebbles, a fossilised watercourse, with two shrunken still pools as signals of what once was. Crossing the river from the south, the road climbs a sandy, conglomerate ridge to overlook a vast bowl of dehesa, a landscape stippled by innumerable encinas, the indomitable holm oaks of the Mediterranean savanna. It is rimmed by the southern edge of the Monfragüe syncline: the barrier of 500 million-year old quartzites, lichen-toned crags erupting from the flanks of evergreen oak cover. From the ridge I can see my destination, the village of Serradilla, lying at the foot of this rim and to the west of that most emblematic of the ruptures across the quartzite, where the great Tagus River cuts past the massive Peña Falcón cliff: the southern gateway of the Monfragüe National Park.

Serradilla is that typical half-forgotten outpost, a dense pack of mainly single-storey white-walled, terracota-tiled homes terraced along eccentrically-dimensioned cement streets, which if you looked from above, recall the logic of a spider's web, but at ground-level transform to a maze. Hardly a soul is encountered, but from some of the dwellings partially-raised shutters and colourfully-striped door-curtains suggested occupancy. From the main road which takes an oblique chord across the town and compromises its width as it searches out the least obtuse of routes, there are few signs of commerce, but down a side-street I quickly find a bar where I am cheerfully offered an ample pincho of tortilla to accompany my coffee.

Leaving the car at the edge of Serradilla I take a lane that strikes out parallel to the hillside above the village. I rejoice at the discordant continuation of the buildings either side of my route, the irregularly plastered walls and painted metal doors of sheds, workshops and garages: signs of a lived-in, worked-in village. This impression is reinforced as I enter the patchwork of stone-walled parcels of small-holdings that is typical of settlements here, precious assets for the people, sandwiched between the village and the vast latifundia of private estates. These dusty allotments are populated by Iberian pigs, a few chickens and donkeys, remains of the summer tomatoes wither and from a plot of water melons, with the globes of fruit dotted across the yellowing bed of leaves, a flock of Rock Sparrows twang as rise, their white-tipped tails flashing. The uneven stone walls offer perches for Black Redstarts. An arid paddock is criss-crossed by ant highways, dark seams across the textile-like mat of dried grasses, whilst a Hoopoe waddles in its curious clockwork gait.

The slope above Serradilla, fingered by small olive groves, is largely clothed by evergreen oak, patches of pines and the matorral of rock rose, with emergent rock outcrops. Over these dozens of House Martins pirouette, amongst them the darker, stockier Crag Martins, with stiffer, more-swift-like wings. As I watch, a swift does enter the arena, black and slender, until with a twist, its white band reveals its identity: a White-rumped Swift whose sojourn here extends well into autumn. I pause on the track, listening to Cirl Buntings rattling and looking south-east over the rolling dehesa with the bluish form of the Villuercas Mountains on the horizon, a good 75 kilometres away.

The track now boasts a mixed vegetation: wild olives, mastic and strawberry tree and, as if on cue, a Two-tailed Pasha crosses the path, a flight of strong stiff glides, before settling on a lichen-covered snag to take the sun. I climb on top of a stone wall to try to get an unimpeded view of this impressive butterfly, but the angle is wrong with only its rear end in view, But as the sun warms it, it opens its wings and I get a powerful glimpse of the pair of amber bands on the upper forewing, the yellow strip on the hind wing, sky-blue dusted markings and the white-rimmed pair of tails.

Partially hidden Two-tailed Pasha (Martin Kelsey)
I am led finally to the Friar's Gorge, where a stream flows between a narrow entrance through the ridge and a quartzite pillar stands like a cowled monk in testimony. Above me two Griffon Vultures circle, taking deep flaps as they turn, paddling the air. A contrast to the steadfast determination of a Black Vulture which glides above them, crossing my view on rigid, slightly bowed wings.

Approach to Mirabel Castle (Martin Kelsey)
From Serradilla I cross the ridge and approach the ruins of the castle of Mirabel, standing high on Acero hill. The present structure has dominated the skyline since the 15th century, an earlier fortress being destroyed by the Almohades two hundred years earlier. A small group of Griffon Vultures had found an updraught along the ridge and were joined briefly by a Spanish Imperial Eagle, gliding away from me, before turning with a shock of the emulsion-white leading edge of the wing. Below the castle on a wide sweep of land is a dehesa of cork oaks, more noble trees than the holm oaks. I walk through this parkland, flushing a Tree Pipit from the ground close to me and I watch it take a perch, longitudinally on a branch, tail-pumping as it stands and preens. Ahead of me a cork oak stands out even amongst its conspecifics, taller, with a canopy spreading 27 metres. This is the Padre Santo (Holy Father) oak, estimated to be 900 years old. It stands unaided, its foliage lush green and evidence of successive cork harvests on its boughs high above me. This plant has lived through the whole of the history of the castle above it, indeed as a sapling it would have searched for light through the shade of conspecifics that might have started their lives during Roman times: conceivably just two or three cork oak generations away from the present. As I rest beside the Padre Santo, a movement catches my eye. A Spotted Flycatcher had left the tree on a short sally and is now back on its perch, in chippy upright posture and alert for prey. For the flycatcher, this is a stopover on its long-distance migration to the tropical forest savannas of Africa - how many generations of flycatchers has this singular tree served?


Looking up into the Padre Santo cork oak, 900 years old (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 22 September 2016

A landscape takes shape

Summer drought in Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)
The heat at the start of the month turned the landscape two-dimensional, sucking out depth and leaving it as a flattened canvass. As the shade temperatures hit 40ºC, nothing stirred. All creatures it seemed had found some solace in shade, whilst we retreated indoors.  Early September brought us the hottest days of the year, and sleepness nights too. Then change happened abruptly as we entered the second week, and for the first time I could step out of the door in early morning and become embraced by a shock of freshness. For the first time too, for many days, it was now comfortable to sit out and eat at night and we did so at the middle of that second week gazing at the glorious rhomboidal juxtaposition of a young Moon, Mars, Saturn and Antares.

Now we can rejoice a landscape again bearing form and solidity, an autumnal bite to a blue sky across which pass drifts of Spotless Starlings. Parties of these garrulous birds sit in the trees which now bear over-ripened figs, a starlings' fig party indeed and there is a constant chortling, a musical gurgling.  As I stand the garden I am aware of a new sound, distant but penetrating, the bellow of Red Deer stags, embarking on their annual rut, deep, almost adenoidal groans. There too, that most uplifting of sound, champagne fresh and clean, the lilt of a Woodlark: the undeniable herald of autumn, which captures like nothing else days of autumnal sunshine.
Singing Woodlark (John Hawkins)

The days are still hot (close to 30ºC), however the equinoxal nights are deliciously longer and cooler. But the single day of some rain recently, which broke about three months of drought, has plainly not achieved yet the arrival of our second spring, when in the space of days the landscape becomes green with the appearance of delicate new spikes of grass. With no rain expected at least through to the end of the month, we have still more days ahead to contemplate the the powerful harshness of the baked blond ground vegetation, in places crumbled by the hooves of livestock, and the sharpness of the lengthening shadows in the dehesa - a contrast made of black and gold.

Notwithstanding this sense of waiting, cues of change are being clocked up daily. Just two days ago, a biting tic call from the garden told me that our first wintering Robin had arrived. And there it was, close to the trunk of a tree, in a shady patch of the parched lawn, with its appealing upright stance and large-headed appearance, alert and cocky. A companion for the months ahead, whatever the weather.

Robin (Martin Kelsey)