Saturday, 4 November 2017

Walking on the Wild Side

The Fortress of Hornachos (Martin Kelsey)

The immense quartzite crests rise above the gentle undulations of the red-earthed Tierra de los Barros, forming a landmark visible from a huge distance. The Sierra Grande de Hornachos, reaching over 950 metres above sea-level, is the tallest and most impressive of the sierras in the centre of the province of Badajoz. Looking at a relief map of Extremadura, these ridges appear as dispersed ripples, but stand anywhere is this vast landscape and you will see these sierras taking on the perspective of galleons, with Hornachos the flagship of the fleet. It both dominates and yet also gives out an aura of remoteness. Indeed, whilst conscious of its presence everytime I venture into this part of the region, I had rarely, unforgiveably,  reached out to explore it.

Crowning the western crest are the remains of  the Moorish fortress and tucked below it is the town Hornachos. From this vantage point the sense of isolation is profound and indeed, the town remained as an enclave of the Moriscos (Muslims who converted or were coerced into the Christian faith) well after the Reconquest by the Christian forces in 1232. Right up to the start of the 17th century, the town's population was 10,000 and one of the most largest Morisco centres in Spain and, unlike many others, openly practiced their Muslim faith, largely thanks to the remoteness of the community. However, in 1609, under order from King Phillip III, the Moriscos were expelled. They settled in Morocco, close to modern-day Rabat. Subsequently the town went into decline and today the population is less than half of that in medieval times.

The Sierra Grande erupts from the surrounding dehesas and olive fields with abrupt impressive crags and ancient scree slopes clothed with wild olives, cork oak and junipers. It was the latter that prompted our visit, their berries being an important food source for wintering Ring Ouzels. The distribution of the species as shown in the Spanish Winter Birds Atlas has just a single ten kilometre square marked for Extremadura, close to the border with Andalucia, which is the most important wintering area in Iberia. Juniper is found more commonly in the southern half of Extremadura, on the rocky slopes of these sierras, than in the north. The fieldwork for the Atlas took place between 2007 and 2010. Since then there has been an increase in the number and effort of birders in the southern Extremadura, with a concomitant increase in the number of records of Ring Ouzel. Most of these records may be of birds of passage, but perhaps there are more wintering Ring Ouzels here than we have thought.

At the edge of Hornachos, Fuente de los Cristianos (Martin Kelsey)

We found a track ascending the lower slopes beside the town. High above us the mountain side stippled with juniper drew us on invitingly.  A small valley provided terrain for smallholdings and allotments, a tiny patchwork of olives, figs and oranges. The place was full of birds, numerous Blackcaps and Song Thrushes feasting on berries. Suddenly a larger thrush swept in and landed proudly right on top of a large fig tree. It exuded a sense of the wild. Its long tail was slightly cocked, its slender neck stretched. There was something almost windswept about its chemistry, as if it has brought with it a dose of distant mountain tops. We did not need to see its bold white crescent on its breast. nor the frosted edgings to its wings to know that we had been greeted by a male Ring Ouzel. It stood poised and then dropped into an adjacent tree. Here suddenly it became remarkably concealed. I pointed the camera at where I thought it had plunged and when checking the photos afterwards was amazed to find that two of them actually showed part of this enigmatic bird with its white chest band.

Male Ring Ouzel (Martin Kelsey)

Blackbirds too were present, looking stockier and less elegant than the Ring Ouzel, but making it their business to push this intruder away. From the same tree, another bird erupted and, with a powerful direct flight, swooped up to land on an almond tree. It sleekness betrayed its identity: another Ring Ouzel. This was a browner first-winter bird, with scalier underparts but bearing the same pale edgings on the upper part of the closed wing.
Ring Ouzel (Martin Kelsey)

Although we did make a short venture to the edge of the juniper area, where we failed to find any more of our quarry, we spent most of the rest of the morning beside this busy area at the edge of the town. The Ring Ouzels teased us with more short exposures between the foliage and low, long, straight flights, sometimes giving their  cut-off chack calls. An Iberian Grey Shrike perched on a cable over a tumbledown house. There a male Black Wheatear also stood, before flying up the hillslope, its fanned, white-based tail shining like a beacon. A bird too of the wild side of this hidden enclave.

At the edge of Hornachos (Martin Kelsey)


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Small is powerful

Emerging grass shoots (Martin Kelsey)

It is a week since the first rains of autumn arrived. The moment the dust dampened we imbibed that familiar alluring scent. It even has a special name, coined by Australian researchers (who know a thing or two about droughts): petrichor. The distinctive aroma of rain as it breaks the drought is caused by two substances: oils from certain plants that become absorbed by the soil and also a metabolic by-product made by actinobacteria when the soil is wet. These actinobacteria act a bit like fungi, breaking down organic matter and enriching the soil. We depend on them, yet few of us know that they even exist. Only when we exalt in the petrichor do we have an unknowing sensory connection to them.  The scent of rain draws us to our roots. And, like when we gaze into the flames in a hearth or feel comforted by the embrace of savannas of the dehesas, it is a moment when that layer of modernity slips from our grasp.

Seven days on small changes are visible. Everywhere tiny green spikes of grass have now reached a height of two centimetres. Each one appears fragile but resolute, just a day or two old, emerging erect from the darkened soil. So small they are easily overlooked, but so powerful are they that the landscape will be changed. I mark out a square, five centimetres by five centimetres. There are about 70 tiny grass shoots visible. This means that in just one hectare, 280 million green spears have pierced the surface since the weather changed, and more will be following. In a few more days aided with the warmth of late October sunshine (and hopefully some more rain), our landscapes will be transformed. Green will return and we will embrace an emerald Extremadura right through winter and on to the eventual demise of spring.

Woodlark (John Hawkins)

The landscape changes in other ways too. Joining the transformation of colours and a clarity of the air, briefly laundered by clouds, there are new sounds. The sweet cadence of Woodlarks seems totally in tune with the freshness of the morning. I eagerly await this most uplifting of autumnal sounds. Robins have also arrived from northern Europe and their fluid winter song glistens like a resurgent stream.

Moisture in the soil has provoked other stirrings of small beings. We stood in the middle of a vast rolling expanse of open plains. Our journey had paused so that we could watch the drunken wheeling of a gathering of Common Starlings, just arrived from eastern Europe. Skyward we directed our binoculars, picking up the eccentric twists that the starlings were making. As we focused, the reason for these manoeuvres sunk home. Amongst and beyond the birds were myriads of particles, showing almost Brownian motion. As we concentrated a subtle buzzing or crackling sound could be heard. At first we assumed this came from the nearby power lines, but the timbre was not quite right. It issued from these tiny objects themselves, the sum of a countless mass. We were watching the alates of an ant: large winged-queens and multitudes of winged-males. The latter pursued the queens, seeking aerial bonding, which usually brought them sliding down to the ground. Their mission accomplished, wings were discarded unceremoniously by some mysterious disconnection of tissue.

Firecrest, photographed in March 2016 (Martin Kelsey)

Across the dehesas, barely audible high-pitched whispers help me locate a tiny bird which, shrew-like, is perpetually on the move from dawn until dusk in search of tiny invertebrates. Through the dapple of holm oak leaves, it rewards me with the briefest of glimpses, but never of the whole bird itself. The visual fragments fit together like a jigsaw and are crowned by the shock of black, white and red on the head. Firecrests, so aptly named, are also moving into Extremadura now, taking advantage of the landscape of trees and mild winter days. Food can always be found, even if the tiny size of the morsels means that foraging becomes their sole pursuit all day long. Across our region there will be tens of thousands of Firecrests this winter, so small that they too are barely noticed but also playing their role in shaping a landscape. 



Sunday, 1 October 2017

Local patches

Parkland beside the Guadiana River in Mérida (Martin Kelsey)
The sting at the tail of this long dry summer is merciless. There is no respite from the prolonged drought or the heat of the day. The rustic fatalism of rural communities means that in every encounter I have with neighbours or passers-by the conversation is framed by the parched, dustbowl of the plains or the shrivelled olives foretelling a disasterous harvest. People are forlorn: longing for the wave of autumn rains which remain stubbornly at bay. Signs of hope are remote - it moved me to find fresh flowering Merenderas, pink splays of petals, drawing on moisture stored in their bulbs, casting early morning shadows across the dust, as seemingly lifeless as the surface of the Moon.

Merendera (Martin Kelsey)

But last week some solace was found in the environment of an urban park, right in the centre of our capital city, Mérida. We started at the magnificent two-thousand year-old Roman Bridge, spanning the Guadiana River,  the longest surving Roman bridge in the world. The river's name itself acts as a parenthesis to the Roman heritage: a composite word derived from the post-Roman Arabic word "wādī " meaning river, and a pre-Roman word "ana", also meaning river. Downstream on the western bank there is a strip of public park. Here watered lawns soothe the eyes and the clumps of ornamental trees offer pools of shade. It is an oasis in these times of drought. The riverbank is clothed by Typha reedmace. Across the park are playgrounds, paths and benches, refuge for the residents of the apartment blocks of the residential zones beyond.

David Lindo on his local patch, with friends (Martin Kelsey)

This green and watered land is refuge too for other denizens, a wonderful conglomeration of birds, attracted by the same elements as the people here: water, shade, the softness of foliage. The birds have places to forage in and rest. This is the local patch for my friend and colleague, the Urban Birder David Lindo. He lives just minutes from this park and when not working overseas, will stroll along the river bank here, downstream for a kilometre or so from the Roman Bridge. This is his beat, to reconnect after periods of absence to a local milieu, to track from day to day, week to week and month to month, the flux and change of the birdlife. Most birders have such haunts, a place where a such a depth of familiarity is achieved that in one's mind's eye each tree and bush can be visualised, regular perches for particular species recognised and one becomes driven by the anticipation of surprise and discovery. For many such birders, finding an addition to one's local patch list can be as exhilarating as seeing a bird for the first time ever. Despite only working this site for about three year's now, and with long absences abroad, David has already clocked up 115 species in this short stretch of parkland and riverside.

Migrant Pied Flycatcher in Mérida (Martin Kelsey)
As we strolled through the park, both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers were making use of the dappled shade to dart out on fly-catching sallies, Hoopoes probed in the luxury of recently watered turf, whilst Willow Warblers seemed to lurk in almost every corner. We stood and watched a migrant Tree Pipit as it sauntered in bouyant gait at the edge of tall grass. Bird on passage, stocking up their reserves prior to their trans-Saharan crossing are present across the region at the moment, but those who had paused to feed here struck me as especially privileged. It is very likely that many of these individuals will remember this oasis beside the Guadiana, amidst the streets, stone and concrete of the city and be here again in a year's time - to be watched again by the Urban Birder.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Stand-by

Booted Eagle in September (John Hawkins)

Summer clings on, despite the delicious freshness at dawn. The countryside is poised on stand-by until the first rains of autumn. The sound of August's piping Bee-eaters have long gone and replaced by the incongruous cheeping of Booted Eagles. Slowly circling against the porcelain sky, this aggressive small eagle utters a premigratory chitting call, recalling a slowed-down version of the cheeps of a day-old poultry chick. I hear this call in the spring as well, as pairs dance over newly established territories. Now it seems like a lament, to the vestige of their sojourn here in Extremadura.

There is barely no other movement. Clusters of House Martins on the wires disperse into a void during the day, and Red-rumped Swallows, now in family groups, descend in wide glides to nest sites to roost at dusk. But during the day, a heavy emptiness hangs over the olive groves and fields. Only the indefatigable Heliotrope is in flower, somehow finding sustenance in the dust. But sit and observe. There is a silent migration underway. A flitter betrays a Pied Flycatcher, appearing from the base of low canopy to seize an insect and withdrawing again to perch, almost invisibly, in the shadows. When one bird encounters another, there will be the short, whip-crack like calls of contact breaking the brooding silence. I can see more Pied Flycatchers in half an hour at this time of the year, than in the whole of spring: testament to a loop migration which sends millions through the Iberian Peninsular as they move south, whilst their northward return takes them much further to the east. Each day small birds are trickling through, pausing, feeding and resting: flyatchers, redstarts, Whinchats, Willow Warblers, Garden Warblers and Whitethroats. They appear briefly from cover, quietly waiting for garrulous Azure-winged Magpies to finish bathing and drinking at the few remaining places where water can be found.

The story is different in places where there is a lot of water. The rice harvest is now underway and yesterday I sat in my car and watched as just a few feet away from me bundles of Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets and a Squacco Heron, joined by Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls, clamboured and leap-frogged over each other as a tractor mashed the stubble into an oozy, food-rich quagmire. Far more dainty were the Yellow Wagtails (I counted over eighty in a field barely the size of two tennis courts) busy catching smaller prey. Their movements were jerky yet purposeful, taking long darting strides culminating with a split-second lunge (sometimes aided by a flutter of the wings) to pick-up an insect with their tweezer-like bills. Across this constantly moving flock, there was a staggering variation of colours, from rather grey juvenile birds to males in rich satin hues of yellows, olive-greens, whites and blues.  They were colour-coded as per their origin: Iberian birds with bluish heads, yellow underparts and white throats, Central European birds with yellow throats and darker blue heads and at least two British birds with a glorious strong-lemon, suffused against a more yellow-toned green on the backs, how appropriate their subspecific trinomial: Motacilla flava flavissima!
Yellow Wagtail (M.f.favissima) Martin Kelsey

I stopped to take a look at a small gravel-based water tank, thronging with Mallard and Teal, still in postnuptial eclipse plumage. Some migrant Pintail up-ended and swimming close to them were four juvenile Great Flamingos, part of an usually large influx into Extremadura this year. A party of coot were reaching up to pick off seeds from some inundated grasses. I gave them a casual check with my telescope, as a final gesture before heading back to car. One caught my attention with its rear-end pushed up more markedly than usual. As it turned, its bluish bill contrasted with a smooth-sided white frontal shield with a distinctive square-top. I realised that I had just found a Red-knobbed Coot, a rarity in Extremadura from the deep south of Spain, perhaps dispersing outwards from the drought-ridden marismas. It was the first I had seen in the region for over a year.

Red-knobbed Coot (rather distant) Martin Kelsey



Monday, 14 August 2017

The sound of silence

Bee-eater (John Hawkins)

Returning to Extremadura after several weeks away and I am confronted by Lucifer, the name, I hasten to add, given to this year's Mediterranean blast-from-an-open-oven heatwave. Pleasure is found at dawn, when the air still feels fresh. I slowly walk on the plains, each footstep a crunch of brittle grass, as bundles of Calandra Larks twang across my view just a few feet from the ground. At the same height a male Montagu's Harrier is hunting, seeking signs of movement of possible prey in that narrow window of time before the heat pushes the rodents and small birds into cover. The subtly-changing hues of the landscape as the low sun rolls out have a transitional depth. In just a few hours, the light has flattened and we are left with a bicoloured impression: the remarkably uniform golden blond of the crisp dry herbaceous vegetation, set against the sombre green of the encina holm oaks of the dehesas. And above, an extraordinarily plain Dunnock egg-blue sky, empty of cloud and even bereft of life, until a passing Red-rumped Swallow chortles slowly overhead.

There is a strong sense of stillness at this time of year, silence. There is barely a yelp from a Little Owl at dusk and certainly no calling amphibians, simply subdued crickets at night. And I can stand in the middle of day, under this azure sky, not a breath or a whisper...it must surely be the only time of the year here when everything is so still, so silent. Until a soft"prrt", repeated three times, then more rapidly into a chorus, joyfully, breathlessly, almost adopting a Castillian lisp. The "prrt" becomes slightly slurred "pwwrrt". This sound of silence comes from the empty sky, and despite struggling to do so, I cannot locate its source. But I can tell that these calls come from many birds, a large flock indeed, and it is one of the most easily recognisable of bird calls here: Bee-eaters.

And at this time of the year, almost everywhere I stop, I can pick up this sound. Bee-eaters are amassing in readiness for their migration southwards. Sometimes, I do encounter these groups, especially in the rice fields, perched on cables and darting off in a sally to swoop down over the intense green of the crop. They arch back to perch, with their wings pleasingly uplifted in a salute as they do so, with a dragonfly in their bills. The paddies are seething with millions of Red-veined Darters, a superb resource for these aerial hunters.

Red-veined Darter (Martin Kelsey

The profile of the Bee-eaters over the last few days has risen not merely for these post-nuptial concentrations, their omnipresence. A press release from ASAJA (a national association representing young farmers) on behalf of bee-keepers has described a devastation of the bees by Bee-eaters this year, causing a massive fall in honey production. Honey production is important in Extremadura with about five thousand tonnes produced annually, supporting, according to ASAJA, 1600 families. The Lucifer heatwave, the prolonged hot spell before it, coupled by the severe drought all year, have truncated the flowering season significantly, yet of the reported 60% fall in honey output this year, only 20% is claimed to be due to severe weather conditions and 40% attributed to the Bee-eaters, although no evidence is given to base this assertion. Neither is any mention made of the role of pesticides on bee populations. Furthermore, they describe the Bee-eater as an "invasive" species, a description lazily picked-up by some journalists, despite the fact that far from being invasive,  Bee-eaters are not only native to Spain, but have lived alongside bees in Extremadura for millenia.

I applaud and admire young people who are resisting the temptation to migrate to the cities and instead seek to build livelihoods on the land in Extremadura. The landscape and the wildlife it supports is the outcome of an intricate relationship built up over the centuries with rural communities. Without young people, the small villages here will slowly die (as they are doing in many parts of Spain). It is a tough life and I can empathise with the anxiety and natural reaction of a honey producer in a difficult year seeing a flock of Bee-eaters descend to feed on the bees around the hives. However, scientific research by at least two different universities in Spain shows that the impact of Bee-eaters on bees and honey production is negligable. Sadly,  ASAJA is misleading young farmers and the public by failing to be scientifically credible and accurate. In response to these representations, the government of Extremadura will permit honey producers to use methods to scare Bee-eaters away (including the firing of shotguns), although specific requests detailing methods and time-frame will need to be submitted for approval. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and the Environment already has recommendations on techniques which are known to be much more effective and are simple to adopt without causing disturbance to the birds (such as caged protection to hives and providing access to water close to hives where bees can drink in extremely hot weather). Conservation groups are urging that these tried and tested measures are the ones that should be approved.

What is saddest of all is that another opportunity has been lost to build alliances to address the fundamental challenges facing both birds and bees. Positions between the honey sector and conservation have become needlessly entrenched when actually there is massive common interest. The enemy to both is insidious and invisible, but well known: the increasing use of pesticides in the environment.


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.