Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tented colonies

The homes of the Winter Webworm Ocnogyna beatica (Martin Kelsey)

I am standing beside pasture in late winter, facing the low sun, and watching the light refracting from silvery patches that freckle the field. They glow like medallions on the green baize of the meadow. I approach one and bend down to take a closer look. The structure is a canopy, closely woven, holding tiny globules of dew which collectively provide the silver sheen on the web. But I am more curious of its inhabitants, for below this tent squirm several hundred tiny caterpillars. They are the Winter Webworm, the larva of a tiger moth Ocnogyna beatica, a species of the western Mediterranean basin.

The Winter Webworm Ocnogyna beatica colony (Martin Kelsey)

Hatching in the middle of winter, they spend the first few weeks of their lives in these tented colonies. Their diet is catholic, consuming the winter greens of fresh foliage of clovers, mallows, vetches and mustards, and probably pretty much anything else growing around them. It strikes me that these veiled tents under which they are domiciled not only protect them from hoar frosts, but must also act like cloches for the food plants around the larvae. In a dry winter like this one, dew formation is a crucial source of moisture and perhaps the structures that the caterpillars have made create a favourable micro climate for the plants they feed on.

Winter Webworm larva on a sand crocus in early March (Martin Kelsey)

Once they are two or three centimetres long, come late February, the caterpillers evacuate their tents and roam widely. In places they become super-abundant, masses crossing tracks and roads, all heading in one direction, synchronised around a mysterious cue. By late spring they enter their pupa stage, a chrysalis that lies deep in the ground (10 to 20 centimetres) far from the severe dessicating drought of summer. This is the longest stage of  their annual cycle.

With the autumnal rains the adults emerge, the male with attractive variegated black and white wings and the wingless female, looking like a miniscule yak - plump with shaggy auburn hair. She will lay clusters of eggs and her progeny just three months further on will dapple the pastures with their minature greenhouses.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Returning north

Migrating Greylag Geese at dawn on 20th January (Martin Kelsey)

I have seen a couple of Barn Swallows already this month, and they are most likely to be early returning migrants rather than overwintering birds, but it is still mid-January and, as the proverb says one (or even two) swallows do not make a summer. However, one clue that happened yesterday as I was hanging out the washing was an incontrovertible signal that the wheels of seasonal change are starting to roll - and it summoned a tinge of sadness within me.

The sun had yet to break the horizon of the hills to our east, but the House Sparrows were stirring with their chirruping waking conversations. Above this sound came another. It too was conversational but more strident and urgent. It was the honking of geese. Then from the south, and crossing my field of vision, was the skein. This was no short-distance foraging foray. These birds were flying high and with a purpose. They were returning north, Sightings of geese over our garden are exclusively birds on migration: in October and November heading south and then late January and February heading north. There are wintering populations just 25 km away as the goose flies, but nowhere closer to home are there any favoured feeding areas.

These geese were Greylags. This is a species which arouses little interest for visiting birders from Britain, for whom this species is associated with large,boisterous feral flocks. But these Greylags are truly wild birds, starting a journey back to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. For me, our wintering Greylag Geese provoke a sense of wonder and respect, as do the Cranes, in their highly visual and audible migration. When I see them like this, I can only marvel at the drive, part innate and part learnt, that triggers the timing and direction of their journey.

In the centre of Extremadura, the Greylags feed mainly on rice stubble fields, alongside the cranes. But they select just a few particular zones, perhaps because there they are close to water bodies where they will roost. One of my favourite winter pastimes is spending the last hour of daylight at a spot where I can look across one of these sites. The low sun behind me provides wonderful viewing conditions across an expanse of rice stubble. Marsh and Hen Harriers will be out, causing flurries of Spanish Sparrows and Corn Buntings to erupt from amongst the dead stems. Common Cranes in family groups daintly pick at the debris on the ground. But it is the geese I focus on, aware that with each minute that passes, I have less and less day light to work with. It is about patience, lots of it. I am searching the flock for any unusual geese that may have migrated south along with the Greylags. As anyone who has watched feeding geese will know, most of the flock will have their heads down feeding, others will be asleep, leaving just a few with their heads held high in vigilence.  The problem is that when searching for unusual species, it is the bill, head and neck that carry the easiest to spot differences. In the tall rice stubble, the situation is even more complicated. Sometimes just the top of the back of a goose will be visible, and sometimes it will disappear completely as it moves into a runnel. And as good as my vantage point is, some of the flock will simply be too far away to see well.
Wintering Greylag Geese in rice stubble (Martin Kelsey)

On almost every visit, therefore, I content myself in knowing that  I have at least tried and that, despite the frustrations, it was a truly wonderful way to spend a late winter's afternoon. Twice though this winter, the effort did pay off. Once with finding two White-fronted Geese and then a month later, discovering a much rarer Pink-footed Goose in the same place.
White-fronted Goose (closest bird) with Greylag Geese in rice stubble (Martin Kelsey)

Seeing the migrating geese yesterday, prompted me to return to this viewpoint in the afternoon. I had passed by there just two days earlier and several hundred geese were present, but I could not pause for long there because  I was busy counting cranes, and besides the light was too bright to scan the geese carefully. Back there yesterday, the message conveyed by the migrating geese was all too clearly confirmed. Just three Greylag Geese remained. And so my afternoon goose watching season had ended for another year. 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

A landscape for raptors

December's leaden skies (Martin Kelsey)
I relish the sight of troubled skies, heavy smudged charcoal, brush strokes of cinder-grey. And never more so than above the open steppes of Extremadura, bearing subtle tones of emergent green now. Westerly winds roll the banks of cloud, which fracture to allow angled beams of light to illuminate a distant dehesa, like a moving searchlight. The combination of open terrain and a vast sky creates a multi-dimensional space fully exploited by one group of birds in particular, the raptors. The Extremaduran plains are bird of prey habitat par excellence

In the first hour of daylight on a winter's morning there is movement. Multitudes of small birds are woven across the pasture. Jerky Meadow Pipits are walking, a fluster of Skylark settles, small parties of Corn Buntings tic-tic in urgent flight above us. There are White Wagtails and Lapwings on the ground. Two Thekla Larks shuffle beside a lichen-dressed piece of ancient slate. An Iberian Grey Shrike faces us on the fence, using its long-tail as a balance, with an accompanying Stonechat perched attentively just a few metres away from it. A roving, rasping party of Calandra Larks surge across the field. We bird by simply standing still and watching.

Suddenly, I hear a different sound, a high-pitched warning call and instinctively, like all the birds around me, I look up. Against the grey sky I see first of all a fluttering speck, a tiny Meadow Pipit. From the right another shape pitches in, compact and menacing. The Merlin skims across the pipit and swerves upward in an arc, then swooping downward, missing its target again. In barely a second, it has launched vertically to attempt another strike, its tail and wings spread as it brakes in pursuit of the prey. The pipit escapes. Then, as the Merlin, having overtaken the pipit, banks to plunge, another Merlin with arrow-like direct flight, enter the scene. It too swivels into attack. The Meadow Pipit disappears behind the skyline, both Merlins now following it. But the performance has not ended. One of the Merlins rises above the horizon and then dives down below it. In a perfection of timing, the second does the same, followed again by the first. It is as if they were trampoling, rising and falling, one after the other. How can the pipit possibly escape? But evidently it does because one Merlin flies off, in low direct flight, followed by the other, both looking empty-handed. 

In a nearby river valley, we watch an Otter moving upstream. It is the first time the river has flowed since the spring, so entrenched has been the drought. The heavy cloud does not bode well for sightings of large birds of prey, but perhaps because of the wind, there are Griffon Vultures gliding slowly above. Below them, a dark, longer-tailed bird rises, its wings in a shallow V and bearing a buoyant tilt. The Golden Eagle quickly gains height, pauses, closes it wings and in sheer exuberance, dives earthbound, until opening its wings again and allowing its own momentum to push it skywards once more. Again it dives down and rises, its skydance mirroring the trampoling Merlin.

The road follows the route of a Cañada Real, an ancient drovers' trail - a strip of uncultivated common land, 75 metres wide. The vegetation here is tall and withered, with scattered Retama bushes. Ahead of us, in low sweeping flight is a male Hen Harrier, a young bird, judging from the brownish tone in the middle of its back, but with gull-grey upperwings, black tips, and white underwing, neatly bordered by black on the trailing edge. We stop to watch it as it carefully quarters the verges. Its long glides are broken by a banking motion, as it stops and backtracks, prompted by a potential prey, before continuing in forward motion. It reminds me of an absent-minded pedestrian, stopping mid-stride, turning around abruptly, before changing his mind and resuming his walk.

A larger bird of prey appears to our left, caramel-coloured with dark flight feathers, fringed with white and white also on the rump. It flaps heavily before gliding, the ground falling away below it, its wings rigid and flat. It is a young Spanish Imperial Eagle. As it disappears from view, another identically marked bird approaches us from the left, taking a few flaps before it too drifts away. I feel feebly terrestrial, contemplating the space that this bird explores. We then notice another observer. Standing on a small dog's teeth of protuding rock, and resplendent with white epaulets, thick cream head with its neat black mask, is an adult Spanish Imperial. Despite its acute vision, our presence unremains unacknowledged.  I like to think that we are perhaps insignificant to it as it surveys this terrain, a landscape fit for eagles. As maybe was the cow, sitting nearby, which like us, also watched the eagle. All on a winter's day.

Spanish Imperial Eagle watched by a cow (Martin Kelsey)

Saturday, 25 November 2017

False dawns

The River Almonte in November 2017 (upper photo) and November 2015 (lower photo) - Martin Kelsey

The photos speak volumes...comparing the River Almonte in a normal autumn (this particular image is from 2015) with its sorry state this year. That joy that embraces all of us who live and work in the countryside of Extremadura as the autumnal rain arrives has been denied us this year. We have been robbed of an entire season, our second spring, that always brings such a sense of recovery after the summer and a more dramatic transformation of the landscape than is ever bequeathed in March and April.

There were false dawns that teased us. We have had three days with rain but separated by long anticyclonic lulls, and prematurely I wrote that autumn had arrived. In our sheltered hillside microclimate at home, yes indeed the land has slowly greened, but as soon as I venture onto the thin-soiled steppes, my demeanour changes and anxiety beckons. Those glorious golden summer tones of sun-dried grasses in the dehesas have senesced to a weary grey. Where sheep have grazed there are fields with barely a stem remaining, just trampled earth and sprays of droppings. Trucks are doing thousand-kilometre roundtrips from the north of Spain to bring hay and straw as emergency feed for livestock, so that the fields are freckled by yellow circles of trodden forage. It must be horrendous for farmers. All of us who sow, plant and harvest share now a feeling of misgiving. It is hard to think of any winners in this drought, perhaps just the vultures which exemplify the silence as they wheel over the ridges.

I stood beside the dried-up course of the Magasca River: lifeness dulled stones, lying months now without the smoothing wash of water. Below me was a tiny stagnant pool, coated by a film of algae whose surface was lined by the record of riffling gusts of wind brought along the narrow valley. Were there still any fish there I wondered. What happens to the barbel in years like, a bottom-feeding fish favouring the clean gravels of moving water? And what happens to the Otters? Ripples spread across the algae from the base of the rock beneath me and from its side emerged the sleekness of a fish-hunter. Thrice the Otter dived and crossed the river's relict pool, each time fruitlessly. It then came out onto the opposite bank, shook itself and moved, arched-backed, across the dried pebbles and up onto the withered bankside vegetation. It headed east (what was "upstream"), disappearing from view as valley turned, doubtless to visit the next marooned pool. It must travel many kilometres each day.

Cormorants with accompanying herons and egrets (Martin Kelsey)

Cormorants it seemed were faring better. The great rivers of the Tagus and Tiétar have their waters damned a several points, and their levels are managed to meet the demands of power generation. Our reflective pause beside the Tiétar was rent by the whoosh of over six hundred Cormorants, urgently flapping just above the water surface, some crashing into the surface. their bow-waves brimming, whilst others, changing their minds, slapped the surface with webbed-feet spread. In counterpoint, both in sound and colour, were a supporting guard of at least twenty Great and Little Egrets. As the Cormorants arranged themselves on the river, so the egrets landed at selected points at the water's edge. Half a dozen Grey Herons took up the rear, one coming to rest in the middle of the river itself, swimming beside the Cormorants as they detected a shoal and started diving. We too, like the egrets, found ourselves following the Cormorants. The egrets were after the fish, flushed by the frenzy to the banks. We were after the visual, an encounter between fish, cormorant and opportunistic egrets, to which we, as passive observers, could relish - a counterpoint too for the enduring drought.

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.