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)

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bursting with bee-eaters

Juvenile Woodchat Shrike (Martin Kelsey
Two birds set the scene at the moment more than any others, by their sheer ubiquitousness and presence. And yet, each summer the almost constant companionship they give takes me by surprise. One is the Woodchat Shrike. On a drive recently through a terrain of mixed habitats, where patches of dehesa woodland were giving way to the plains, it was the most numerous bird to be seen perched on the roadside fences. They perch with a bolt-upright stance, looking bull-headed with a teasingly slowly wagging tail. From the top strand of wire, they are afforded sufficient height to scour the sun-baked earth, with sight evolved to see through the mish-mash of conflictingly-angled dead grass straws for signs of movement. The shrike drops from the fence, becomes immersed in the brittle cover and emerges with a cricket in its hooked-bill, returning briefly to the same perch before taking a bee-line, in typical direct flight away from view. This bird was a juvenile, as indeed are most that I see at this time of the year. Their plumage bears little resemblance to that of their boldly marked parents, looking a faded grey-brown, but beautifully scalloped with fine greyish bars. Only the pale creamy rump presages that of an adult. The species is a common bird here, but their abundance in late summer and the way young birds turn up and seem to take up temporary territories in areas away from typical breeding habitat (such as the edges of the rice fields, or indeed, our garden) suggests both a dispersal from natal sites and, perhaps, movement of birds from elsewhere as part of the gentle roll of autumn passage.

Unlike the Woodchat Shrikes, the Bee-eaters are in groups, sometimes forty or fifty strong, either bursting from low perches and hawking by swoops and glides over the pastures, or wheeling high above, mingling with hirundines, constantly making that pulsating referee-whistle prrrrt. They too are everywhere, moulting adults mixed with the young, less burnished golden above, more damp moss green.

Adult Bee-eaer on left and juvenile on right (Martin Kelsey)

Other birds too are amassing. On the Alcollarín reservoir near home I made four carefully-chosen stops, each offering me different angles on the water body, thus to survey the whole expanse of water, and to take into account the sun's position to enhance visibility, I picked a morning when the wind would be light enough to avoid the water surface becoming choppy. With my mechanical counter at hand I scanned the view, focusing on just two species which have been gathering in post-breeding groups here. Great Crested Grebes loafed languidly in loose parties, many with their long necks resting along their back, a position which accentuated their pale, rounded sterns and recalling flotillas of moored dinghies with sails at rest. I counted through these groups and added in as well the occasional solitary bird, or pairs of adults accompanied by their now large, stripy-headed young, still noisily begging as soon as a parent surfaced from a dive. There were 830 birds all told.

The Little Grebes were far more challenging to count. A few birds were scattered in ones and twos, but almost all were in one of five packs. Quite unlike their larger cousins, the Little Grebes reminded me frenzied nervous shoals, tightly packed, surging uni-directional, and able to switch course in apparent unison. Briefly they might pause and slowly spread out, but halfway through my count, the group would flex and tighten and start again a froth of submersions.   The most intense activity happened when the flock was close to a bank, in shallower water where presumably the small fish they were hunting where themselves more tightly packed. It seemed to me that the grebes were exercising a form of coordinated hunting, driving the fish into the shallows. This attracted Black-heded Gull and egrets which waited at the water's edge, as they do when cormorants perform in the same way.  There was unison in behaviour too when a Marsh Harrier sailed close along the water's edge. Almost all of the group of over a hundred grebes submerged as one, leaving me only being able to imagine the submerged chaotic scene, and having to wait until the grebes had regained a semblance of calm before resuming my count. The tally at the end of the visit was 585 Little Grebe, a remarkable total for not a particularly large reservoir. Like my musings on the Woodchat Shrikes, I wondered where they had all come from.

A pack of Little Grebes (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Bustard blessings

Juvenile and female Little Bustards (Martin Kelsey)
Finding bustards in early August in a year such as this when the wet spring's legacy has left swathes of tall and brittle grasses is ultimately a question of luck. The first two hours of daylight offers the prospect of yield, for once the sun is high in the sky, the rising temperature forces all creatures on the plains into shade. Crested Larks gather in the dark beneath a manger, an Iberian Grey Shrike will find that wisp of shadow behind a fence post, shuffling into position on its barbed wire perch, and bustards plonk themselves onto the ground and pant. Taking a horizontal view across the fields, the surface bubbles with heat haze, thus converting distant cardoon thistle heads into those of bustards. Add in to this the perfect fusion now in colour of the dry vegetation with that of bustard plumage, then serendipity remains the only recourse.

And thus we were blessed yesterday. We made our first stop, just as the sun had capped the eastern hills and the pre-dawn greyness on the plains had been alchemised to a coppery gold. Five Great Bustards were striding in an uneven line across the field beside us, shoulder deep in the grass stems. Despite our proximity, they paid no heed and methodically were using the first hour of daylight to forage. Their focus was not in our direction and their trajectory ran parallel, rather than away, from us. We were ignored. Slow steps and heads tilted down in studied concentration, the briefest of pauses and then a strike, the head disappearing into the herbage to make a peck. Four of the birds looked like adult females, with rather slender grey necks. But with them was a bird identically marked, but no more than two-thirds the size of its companions.   It was a juvenile of the year, fruit of a mating between one of the displaying males that I had watched lekking on this same terrain four months earlier and result of the care and protection its mother had provided subsequently.

Two hours later as we were about to move on from the plains, an experience eclipsed even that one. Something told me that it may be worth checking a particular shallow valley where in the spring a Little Bustard had been displaying. On my visits there in late spring, the grass had grown so tall that despite hearing the display call I had been unable to locate the male responsible at all. The same valley had held two pairs of Stone Curlew, which had often been easier to find as they stayed close to the sparser vegetation amongst the dog's teeth of rocky outcrops.

We reached the place and tall, straw-yellow vegetation seemed an impenetrable barrier to our visual search. Easier to see was the Short-toed Eagle that was perched on a pylon, with a Roller adjacent, a reprise of an identical scene from the spring. But Mark caught some movement, and by extraordinary good fortune, he had found two Little Bustards. Not wanting to take his binoculars away from his eyes, so homogeneous was the field of view, that I had to attempt to follow his line of vision and search for how the birds were moving in the way that he was describing. Sure enough, there they were! They were frequently out of view behind taller or denser vegetation, but their direction was clear, moving down the slope and towards us.    

Little Bustards /(Martin Kelsey)
I paused and took stock. Beside us was a small pool, a stagnant dewpond, with steep rocky sides. It was clear to me that the Little Bustards were making their way in that direction in order to drink. We got back into the car and I drove just a few metres forward to a place where we were closer to the pool, but now less visible to the bustards. We sat and waited. The birds had disappeared from view completely. What we did not know was that whilst we sat there, the Little Bustards had moved in a wide arc and when they reappeared they did so on the bare ground lying between us and the water. They had swung round in order to access the pool from the side where there was a more gentle access.
Little Bustards coming to drink (Martin Kelsey)
Now at close quarters, we could see in perfect detail the fine and intricate vermiculated patterning on the upperparts of both birds and how the colour tones matched in extraordinary precision the dry dusty summer vegetation. But what was also clear was that one of the birds was smaller than the other, had a shorter bill and was a little less marked on the underparts. We realized we were looking at a female with its juvenile offspring. They dropped below the bank and out of view, we assumed they must have been drinking at the pool. Shortly they reappeared, bills glistening, with the bird we now recognosed as the adult female in the lead. They slowly ascended the bank of the pool and then the female made a short run and caught a large grasshopper in her bill. Immediately the young bird ran towards her and together they dismembered the insect. They rose to the top of a rise and were poised to descend the other side and out of view when something changed the mother's mind. She turned  and, with her youngster following, returned for a second drink at the pool. With their thirsts' finally quenched, they took the same path back up the slope and after pausing briefly at the crest of the rise, then dropped to the other side and out of view.

Little Bustards (Martin Kelsey)
We had barely spoken during this extraordinary encounter and I had found the experience deeply moving. Like the Great Bustards earlier in the morning we had been blessed with the sight and evidence of successful breeding - this young bird's father would almost certainly have been the male that I had watched on several occasions here in the spring, and once indeed with a female showing great interest in him. But in a more profound way, these Little Bustards had hit a deeper nerve. This is a species now considered at risk of extinction in Extremadura. A species that has almost disappeared, dramatically and precipitiously, under our very noses.  A species we had taken for granted has become the very symbol of the precariousness and fragility of the dry plains of western Spain. And here before us was a valient, vigilent and careful mother, guiding at each step a representative of a new generation of Little Bustards. No one could predict the future of this particular young bird - huge challenges and many dangers would lie ahead, but I clung to this symbolism of hope and prayed that somehow in the years to come others too would still find Little Bustards here.  

The final view (Martin Kelsey)

Sunday, 31 July 2016

An early paseo

Dawn on the summer plains (Martin Kelsey)
The wise stay indoors and the heat drives the foolhardy inside anyway, so by mid-afternoon as the sun's force doubles back with even greater intensity with the radiant heat from walls, pavements and the baked ground itself, the villages of rural Extremadura appear even emptier than usual. The maximum temperature is reached at about seven in the evening and it only slowly recedes by the time people retire to bed. These last few nights I have pulled a mattress out onto the terrace and slept under the stars. I lie on my back and watch the form of bats caught briefly in the lights from the house, manoeuvering in different patterns, zigzags and straight lines. At stages in the night sounds awaken me - it is invariably fitful sleeping out: sometimes a dog across the valley, a Scops Owl or, just before dawn, a Little Owl. I might register the tock-a-tock of Red-necked Nightjars, whilst two nights ago well after a midnight the sky became full of calling Bee-eaters: already birds on the move? Thus awake for a moment, I gaze skywards: halfway through last night I marvelled at the geometry of Pegasus, directly above me.

These days I head out before dawn (which now just over a month from the solstice has withdrawn to a very respectable seven o'clock). Heading south, the Garciaz hills to my left are outlines against a pale apricot sky. As I pass through villages on my way, many inhabitants are out performing that most time-honoured rural custom: the paseo. Almost every village will have a well-laid path that takes the walkers out beside a road, sometimes for two or three kilometres, with regularly spaced benches and ornamental trees. Here old and young take a daily (or twice daily) constitutional, which in the summer will be pre-dawn and after sunset. Historically it was quite strictly segregated by gender and still I notice that the small groups of twos and threes are almost invariably single-sex, the paseo still providing a chance for gossip, small talk and problem-sharing: women with women, men with men. The social fabric is still strong in Spanish villages, holding together in the face of the attrition of depopulation - few new people come to live in these villages and they are greatly outnumbered by those who leave in search for work.
Dried cardoon thistles (Martin Kelsey)

I reach the plains at the same time as the sun does. Despite the prolongation of flowers this spring, the summer though hesitant at the start has now reached its inevitable and unstoppable climax. Even the cardoon thistles that gave out the final shout of colour have now blended in their dessication to the subtled whispering hues of golden, tawny blond. Underfoot the grasses and herbs are crisp and fragment at touch.  
Moulting first-year male Lesser Kestrel (Martin Kelsey)
Birds have finished breeding and Calandra Lark plunge across the pastures in a driving mass of two hundred birds.  I am struck at how scruffy many of the adult birds are, now well into annual moults, and how confusing it makes them appear. Familar patterns are disrupted by transitional plumages, old and new mixed together. I study a male Lesser Kestrel as it handles a grasshopper that it had just swopped down on. It is a first summer male (hatched last year) on its way to becoming a full adult, slowly replacing the spotting on the wing by a diagnostic grey wing panel and still retains a suggestion of a moustache stripe, which will also disappear. And so moulting full adult and one-year old Lesser Kestrels perch along the fences, beside fledged and heavily marked juveniles, recently fledged. From one point, I can see eleven birds, all lined-up and each one making short pounces onto the ground for prey.
Juvenile Roller (Martin Kelsey)

Rollers too are on the fences, again with adults outshone by their fledged young. The latter are more subtle in their tone, unlike their parents whose outrageousness has now become tatty. The young birds combine an attractive naivity with tidiness, freshness in both senses, with each feather perfectly formed and shaped, as the individual becomes shaped through learning and experience. Each day that passes marks another success for its survival.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Dragons in the heat

Long Skimmer Orthetrum trinacria (Martin Kelsey)
The tussocks of rushes were armoured as porcupines, with their quill-like pointed leaves painfully pricking my bare legs as I entered the edge of the marsh. Fortunately I did not need to walk far, as the creature that I had disturbed on my arrival was soon back on the same perch, a fine male dusky blue Long Skimmer Orthetrum trinacria. This elegant dragonfly was first recorded in Spain in 1980, but is widespread in Africa and where I was standing is one of the best places I know for it. It remained perched, and I stood in silence, taking in its slender dark form, set between the two pairs of intricately venated wings. All the time it was moving its head, the thousands of facets in its compound eyes checking for movement in all directions. And then it sped off, unhesitant and direct. I tracked it with my eyes and watched as it darted between and around the tussocks, sometimes rising, but generally keeping on a fixed horizontal, before returning again to the same perch beside me. As I raised my vision and looked across the flank of Juncus that lay between the Typha marsh and the meadow, other Long Skimmers were active, making patrols or executing swerving chases. Some were these dark blue males, but many were females, sporting bright bluish eyes and patterned abdomens. Indeed were it not for the dragonflies on this late morning in the deadening heat of mid-July, there would have been little else on offer. Whereas a month earlier, standing at this same spot, I was listening to the steady incessant see-sawing begging calls of Purple Herons, these youngsters have now dispersed, leaving an almost smothering silence, save for the occasional ejaculated toy-trumpet blast of a Purple Swmphen or the yakking of a Little Bittern, hidden in the vegetation. It was only when I left that I saw the Squacco Heron that, like me, had been standing motionless at the edge of the marsh.

Squacco Heron (Martin Kelsey)

To the north the plain was crossed by the Tiétar River, flowing fast between vast banks of sandy gravels, with a gallery woodland hiding from view the hinterland of fields of tobacco, doused by Tiétar water from rows and rows of sprinklers. Here my son, Patrick and I simply stood at the water's edge and without effort, watched dragonfly interactions: a Small Pincertail Onychogomphus forcipatus periodically leaving its stone to chase off Epaulet Skimmers Orthetrum chrysostigma, and absorbing the behavioural differences between species as they fitted together in defined niches along the river. Restless Broad Scarlets Crocothemis erythraea were patrolling a section of the littoral, constantly on the move. In complete constrast and rather unobtrusive in comparison were the patient Violet Dropwings Trithemis annulata. These gorgeous arrivals from Africa (like both the Long and Epaulet Skimmers) were perched on dead twigs overhanging the water, their wings dropping low below the line of the body and the high ambient temperature encouraging them to obelisk their bright violet abdomens almost vertically.

Violet Dropwing Trithemis annulata (Martin Kelsey)

From the Tiétar valley the road took us higher and the dehesa landscape subtly changed in tone as evergreen holm oaks were replaced by deciduous Pyrenean Oak with softer lime-green leaves. We stopped beside a small charca, a drinking pool for cattle, but today with just a motionless White Stork standing on the bank. With the temperature now in the high 30s, a party of Common Swifts had descended to drink and they did so oblivious to our presence. Their wings slapped the heavy air as they manoeuvered their precision swoops and so close were they that we could hear the scoop of water as their open gapes scratched the surface of the pool. Here the rushes were gentler, combing rather than pricking our legs and skimmers too were present: large Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum females ovipositing, rhymically dipping their abdomens into the water as they hovered, whilst a male kept guard.

At the edge of a small town at the base of the Gredos Mountains, in an area known as La Vera, we made brief stop to check a small stream passing between a series of allotments where peppers and tomatoes grew in tidy rows. Close to the water there was no sign of any dragons, but in the dappled shade of the foliage above the path we watched the delightful semaphore displays and graceful fluttering of a cluster of Copper Demoiselles Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis, their broad-wings constrasting with their narrow, delicately gleaming metalic bodies.

Copper Demoiselle Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis (Martin Kelsey)

We found a small garganta (the name given to rivers coming down from the mountainside) and stopped at a place where we could scramble down to reach the massive water-smoothed granite boulders, where the river combined sections of rapids with transparent pools of deliciously cold water where small trout drifted. A Dipper paused briefly, bobbed and whirred off downstream. The hillside was clothed by Pyrenean Oak and at last we could hear the sound of birds: Golden Orioles and Blackcap. The bark of Ravens pulled our view skywards, just in time to see a juvenile Golden Eagle being harassed by three cross-shaped and persistent corvids. Higher up a Honey Buzzard drifted across our view. By our feet there was movement. A Large Pincertail Onychogomphus uncatus had settled on a small round rock, its abdomen slightly raised and casting a crisp shadow on the smooth surface of the stone. It paid no attention whatsoever to us, instead treating us to prolonged observation of it perched, interspersed with its sorties to check its domain.

Large Pincertail Onychogomphus uncatus (Martin Kelsey)
Over a couple of days, in an entirely relaxed fashion we had found 21 species of dragonfly and damselfly. We had made, in effect, a small albeit unscientific transect across part of the Tiétar basin. We could easily have found others through a more systematic approach, but for me the reward came from patient and quiet observation. We built a picture, or more accurately a simple sketch, of not merely presence but also being, of niche and behaviour. It was a gift for the curious.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Of a swift and nightjar

White-rumped Swift (Mark Johnson)
Undetected by our terrestial senses, there was evidently a vast resource of tiny prey items, an "aerial plankton"all around us on the crest of the ridge, as witness the surging groups of House Martins, rising to explore the eddies and whirlpools in the updrafts of air, where millions of tiny invertebrates were being trapped. With the hirundines, were the scythe-winged Common Swifts, pushing barracuda-like in a more predatorial mode, easing parallel to the contour, with a determination that contrasted with the House Martins' cheerful randomness.

From our vantage point we looked down and across a vast savannah of dehesa: the dense stippling of holm oaks over the undulating golden-blond pastures of mid-summer, a managed woodland that has become a landscape, typifying, indeed defining, Extremadura.  Solar-powered vultures used nothing more than the thermals of hot-rising air to lift them hundreds of metres into the air, giving them an advantage against gravity which would enable them to drift effortlessly across kilometres of this terrain.

Our gaze returned to the insect-hunters and a pair of swifts were distinctly smaller than the passing Common Swifts, they also behaved differently, making repeated circles close to us, alternating glides with rapid wingbeats and swoops when they held their wings in a stiff and very narrow "V". As they turned a narrow white band across the rump was easily visible and from below they showed rather bold whitish throats. They were, indeed, White-rumped Swifts, a species abundant across Africa and first recorded in Spain in Cadíz in the early 1960s. Although there were records in Extremadura from 1979, breeding was not proven until 1989. Extremadura now holds perhaps a third of the Spanish population of the species with an estimate of between 75-150 pairs. But I am convinced there are are many more: I have personally seen pairs in at least nine different localities - and all are simply incidental encounters, I cannot claim to have made any deliberate effort to search this bird out.  Mark and Sally stood beside me as we watched these birds make successive passes, making us suspect that nearby was their nest, a disused Red-rumped Swallow nest, perhaps on a rocky overhang below us. We moved on lest our presence was disturbing them, but I doubt it was: all swifts seem to make a routine of  successive passes before entering a nest site, which must be more than simply the result of misjudging approach speed and angle.

Swifts are a simply captivating family of birds, the most aerial of all and of the four species breeding in Extremadura, three showing a particularly strong association with human infrastructure. Many of the Alpine Swift colonies here on are bridges or the dams of reservoirs, whilst it is impossible to imagine our local town of Trujillo without its gangland of screaming hordes of Common and Pallid Swifts in their manic charges along the narrow streets and between the rooftops. They share with nightjars the anatomical curiosity of tiny bills but huge gapes. These must function superbly as the birds hoover-up tiny airbourne invertebrates. It is estimated that the bolus of food delivered to the nest by a parent swift may contain up to a thousand creatures.

In the centre of Trujillo I had occasion a few years ago of watching how a nightjar uses its giant gape to catch food. I had been invited to a wine-tasting event and Claudia generously offered to drive into Trujillo later that night to collect me. As she drove into the Plaza Mayor, somewhat past one o'clock in the morning, she saw a rather dubious-looking character standing alone in the square pointing to the heavens. Her apprehensiveness can only have increased when she realised it was me. I was standing entranced by the sight of a Red-necked Nightjar perched on the metal cross on the top of St.Martin's Church and making sallies every couple of minutes to catch moths attracted to the lighting around the square. It was the first time I had ever watched a nightjar foraging and it capped what had been a most convivial evening.
Red-necked Nightjar (John Hawkins)
"Nightjarring" is for many a special birding experience, given the the combination of such cryptic birds, their curious calls and their emergence at dusk. It is about standing on a track at evening and waiting for the mechanical-sound of their songs (in the case of the two species in Europe) to vibrate from the woodland edge, coupled with hope of a sighting of the narrow-winged, long-tailed bird gliding across a gap of open sky. It forms the stuff of life-time memories, and I always have a tingling sensation on my neck and a thump of adrenalin in the pit of my stomach when realising that what I am experiencing will stay as a memory for ever. Such was my feeling on the evening before the solstice this June, as I stood at a place recommended me by Dave and Sammy Langlois, not far from their home in La Vera, a special part of Extremadura on the southern flank of the Gredos Mountains. It was the third year running that I had arrived mid-evening and mid-summer to try my luck in listening to (and hopefully seeing) European Nighjars, a species which is far less common here than the large Red-necked Nightjar. My previous attempts had been failures: nightjars are fickle creatures and we can only guess at the factors which determine whether the bird will choose to call or not. But my expectations were high: it was mid-June, a warm, calm evening with the waxing moon rising, just a day shy of full moon. I parked the car beside some pines, in habitat which was perfect for the species: belts of pine trees, bracken-filled clearings and scrubby hill sides. To the north-east I was confronted with the magnificent sheer mountain massif of the highest part of the Gredos, with ravines close to the peaks still filled with snow. I strolled along the path but stopped in my tracks as soon as I started to hear the nightjar's churring. It was coming from the direction of the very stand of pines where I had parked. I quickly returned to the spot and caught a glimpse of a silhouette of the bird as it left a song perch in a pine, clapping its wings and growling before gliding down into the scrub. I waited for a couple of minutes, wondering whether that would be my only glimpse of the bird, until it rose again and this time approached me. Amazingly it settled on a branch of a tree just in front of me, barely a few metres away.  I slowly lifted my binoculars to my eyes.

What I could see was almost transcendental as an experience. My field of view comprised the almost full moon on the left of the image, with the evening early enough for its brightness not to create a dazzling glare. In the centre, perched longitudinally on a branch and sideways-on for me was the European Nightjar, with enough light for me to see features of its remarkable camouflaged plumage. It was facing left, making an impression of its head, tiny bill and long rictal bristles trimmed by moonlight. And as I stood and watched it started to sing, an extraordinary pulsating churring, which it produced with its bill barely open. At that moment I felt an utter and complete connection to this entire juxtaposition: the moon, the clear sky, the branch and the bird. It was a sense of privilege bestowed and then only broken when the bird took off again, clapping its wings and then gliding into the obscurity of the darkening hillside. I could not possibly have asked for anything more.