Friday, 8 February 2019

Eagles in the Spanish savannas

Male Bonelli's Eagle (Martin Kelsey)

A western outreach of the Montes de Toledo, the Sierra de San Pedro is a chain of low-altitude mountains dividing the basins of the Tagus and Guadiana Rivers, and acting as a political boundary too, with Cáceres province to the north and Badajoz to the south. It extends for over 60 km, running east-west from the city of Cáceres to the Portuguese border. Part of the Sierra is a Special Protection Area for birds, covering over 115,000 hectares.  Despite its relatively low elevation, from our vantage point, and thanks to a morning of extraordinary clean winter light, we could look north across the plains of Brozas and see the arc of the Central System of mountains, with the snow-capped Serra da Estela in Portugal, spanning east to the Sierra de Gata and then the Sierra de Gredos, the granite wall marking the northern limits of Extremadura, views extending for perhaps 150 kilometres.

Sierra de San Pedro (Martin Kelsey)

Closer at hand, we could look down on broad, gentle valleys covered by dehesa woodland, where the cork oaks and holm oaks grow far enough apart for light to reach the ground and for grass to grow. A medieval wood pasture, managed as such still today. But our panoramic view evoked a more primeval response. Our host, Helios, described what we saw as "savanna" and this huge landscape of open woodland, ruptured by wild rocky ridges, bore an African feel. As if to reinforce this sensation, Helios told us that across this expanse there were numerous dolmens, megalithic tombs, remnants of a human presence over thousands of years. The dehesa landscape itself was shaped by people, much more recently than the cultures who built dolmens. But paradoxically within the undulating arenas surrounding us, save for occasional meagre collections of farm buildings, people were absent. Indeed, during our whole morning we saw just one other person.

People were far out-numbered by birds of prey. The Sierra de San Pedro has the largest population of Black Vultures in the world and Extremadura's largest Spanish Imperial Eagle population (about 25 pairs). We were visiting the area with Helios to get front-row seats for another eagle species, one that epitomises sheer power and mystique.

Bonelli's Eagles never give advance notice of their arrival. They hunt by subterfuge and ambush. They are not called in both German and Spanish "Goshawk Eagles" for nothing. They are birds of deep-wooded valleys, crowned by rocky outcrops. The topography of such landscapes is intrinsic to their hunting technique. Their craft is to hug the contour, rising only to make a final stoop on their prey, of which pigeons are a particular favourite. Claudia and I entered the hide and took a seat whilst Helios started hanging pieces of dead bait on exposed branches of cork oak in front of us. His very appearance seemed to be a cue for the eagle. Indeed as Helios was climbing a ladder to our left, the Bonelli's Eagle swung into view and briefly perched on a branch to our right, before taking off and disappearing behind the spur of the hill. Task completed, Helios departed to leave us to sit and wait.

I had forewarned Claudia that we may need to wait a couple of hours. A couple of minutes, more like! As soon as the stage was empty, the Bonelli's Eagle returned. It was the male and he stood for moment to check the scene before starting to feed. This was the start of an extraordinary session of four hours, during which the Bonelli's Eagles were present the entire time.
Male Bonelli's Eagle (Martin Kelsey)

About two-thirds of the way through, the male started to call quietly: a series of soft piping notes. He paused and looked earnestly across the domain of the valley in front of us and towards distant crags. He called again, this time fractionally louder. I looked in the same direction as his gaze and saw a movement. It was his mate approaching from the outcrops, over a kilometre away. Had she heard this barely audible call? She approached on a long glide, coming to settle beside him on the branch in front of us. He had left some food for her and as she fed, he shuffled along the branch to stand in the shade.

Pair of Bonelli's Eagle (Martin Kelsey)


Young female Bonelli's Eagle (Martin Kelsey)

She was a much younger bird. Whilst his trousers were white with blackish oak-leafed shaped centres to the loose soft feathers and his cheeks were white with fine greyish streaks, she had tawny-plumaged legs and her face bore a warm buff tan. We were close enough even to observe the difference of the colour of their eyes.

The creamy-coloured eye of the older bird (Martin Kelsey)

The older male with a rich butter-cream iris, with suffused grey radial marks, whilst the bigger female had a deeper orange-tawny iris, and it seemed to me, a sterner stronger brow. Those eyes had evolved a far greater acuity than my own.

As they departed, we watched as they crossed the valley, their shape just discernible against the stippled background of the crowns of the dehesa evergreen oaks and the grey eruptions of rock. Then, they disappeared, absorbed as it were by distance. And like wherever I have encountered this most alluring of eagles, this place became enchanted.


We visited the Bonelli's Eagle Hide set up by Photo Raptors in the Sierra de San Pedro. Photo Raptors can also offer hides for Spanish Imperial Eagle, vultures and passerines, as well as for Common Cranes in the winter.  


One of the hides for Bonelli's Eagle offered by Photo Raptors 

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Elegy for the Little Bustard

Little Bustards in winter (Martin Kelsey)

It was the second of March 2006 and the late afternoon light was just at the right angle to push through the ashen-grey stems of the dead thistles and reflect against the white feathers on their bellies. Their upperparts were a marginally sandier tone than the thistles that gave them cover, but the vermiculations of darker streaking on the feathers gave crypsis, blending their outline into the jarring, discontinuities of the withered spiky plants. Nevertheless, from where I stood, my back to the sun, I could scan across the slope where they stood. The flock was at rest, stationary, and I could count them one-by-one. There were 330 individuals all told (give or take a couple) and they were Little Bustards.

For a few winters after that, I could still come across sizeable flocks, but never much more than 150. But by the time I was helping with fieldwork in 2016 for the winter census of the species across the whole of Spain, the largest flock I found was 92 birds. Indeed at the national level there were only two flocks bigger than the group that I had counted ten years earlier (and only 14 flocks greater than 100 birds counted in the whole of the country!). This winter the biggest flock I have seen was 39 birds.

SEO/BirdLife has just published the results of the 2016 Little Bustard census. There are two populations of the species: an eastern one which extends through Central Asia to North-east China and which appears to be in good numbers, and the western one, in the Iberian Peninsula, France and Sardinia (with populations on mainland Italy and Morroco practically extinct). The western population is in very fast decline. In western France the species suffered an extraordinary drop of 94% of its population over the last two decades of the twentieth century, whilst the SEO/BirdLife census documents a fall in Spain of both the wintering population and the count of males in spring of 48% between 2005 and 2016. In Extremadura the decline is somewhat sharper, with a drop of 56% of males in spring and a decline of 33% in the winter population.

It is estimated that across Spain over the same period, 17% of suitable habitat was lost. But what is a telling indicator is the lower density of the birds compared with a decade earlier (1.13 males/square kilometre to 0.67). This is showing that, more important than habitat loss, is the reduction in the quality of the habitat. It is a creeping, insiduous threat, invisible, but happening under our very noses, under our watch. If I look at photos I have taken across the plains of Extrenadura over that period, it is hard to see any obvious  difference. But when I walk across the plains in late spring, every footstep I take tells the same story.

When I first visited Extremadura over 25 years ago, I wrote down in my notebook the number of Great Bustards I saw at each place I visited. To my subsequent regret, I did not count the Little Bustards: they were present everywhere I stopped. And on the ground, as I walked, there was an eruption of leaping grasshoppers. Even ten years ago, each step through the vegetation spoke of a vast biomass of invertebrates.  No more. Changes to the plains have not dramatically changed the landscape, but are breaking the trophic pyramid. Shifts towards more intensive grazing, less arable land - and those crops that are grown are now harvested earlier in the season, destined as they are for livestock feed.

As Nigel Collar in his prologue to the findings of the Little Bustard census says, there is the danger of shifting baselines. Twenty years ago people found winter flocks of a thousand Little Bustards, ten years ago we looked for flocks of a hundred, now I am relieved to come across two dozen. Is that now our norm?  Mark Cocker in his book Our Place speaks of environmental melancholia. It is a syndrome I recognise when I see these wonderful creatures hunched amongst the dead thistles on a winter's day, or springing with a shock of white in their whirring wings which sing their Spanish name "Sisón, sisón" as they take flight. I do not believe I shall ever see a flock of 330 Little Bustards again.

A flock of Little Bustard (Martin Kelsey)



Sunday, 30 December 2018

The evening of the day

A winter's evening at Arrocampo Reservoir (Martin Kelsey)

At a quarter to six the action starts, flagged by the arrival of a band of forty Cattle Egrets, pushed by a sense of purpose and giving their craggy calls as they pass. A guttural wrenching call incongrously emergences from the elegance of a Little Egret. Why is it that a family of birds so suave that demand for their nuptual plumes decimated their populations over a hundred years ago, are the authors of such coarse squawks? My musing is quickly overtaken by the next ribbon of dusk activity as I count over two hundred Jackdaws, lining-up and all facing the same direction along high-tension cables. These are suspended from pylons that cut a tangent along the eastern fringe of the Arrocampo Reservoir. Unlike other reservoirs, the water level of Arrocampo barely fluctuates during the year. It acts as the source of coolant water for the Almaráz nuclear power plant, the white domes of which I can see across to my left. The combination of shallow water, absence of changing levels, a fertile catchment and sightly warmer than average water temperature has resulted in a wide margin of emergent vegetation, dominated by reed mace. 

These Typha beds support a rich avifauna (as well as being superb for dragonflies). All of Europe's species of herons, egrets and bitterns have bred here and there are populations also of Purple Swamphen, warblers such as Savi's and Great Reed, and Penduline Tit. Crakes sneak through on passage. But in winter the Typha beds are where an extraordinary mixture of birds bed themselves down for the night. Before their descent, some of the birds are making pre-roost gatherings, such as the Jackdaws on the cables. As I watch them, a group of Lapwings cross my field of view, a staccato of black and white.  Also heading for roost, their choice venue will be a shallow pool nearby.

Pre-roost of Spotless Starlings (Martin Kelsey)
On two pylons hundreds of Spotless Starlings bead the cables and festoon the structures, waiting for the moment to make their descent to the roost. The sun is sinking, the western sky slowly blushes like a bed of embers, as the foreground becomes increasingly monochrome and detail fades. Sound become as important as sight. Reedbeds always host strange utterances from creatures hidden from view. There is a satisfied rounded squeal from a Water Rail. A Purple Swamphen gives an explosive trumpet blast. A Bluethroat tut-tuts. Movement continues as Great White Egrets arc inwards, swirling on stiff half-opened wings to descend into an area of vegetation just to my right. Packs of Jackdaws noisily "jakking" clear from the cables and twist into the same area of reeds. Cattle Egrets are streaming in as well. The combination of black and white: Jackdaws and egrets, seems perfectly matched and assorted, echoing strangely the image of the earlier flock of Lapwings.

Many species of birds roost communally, especially in the winter. The functions of coming together at night include the hypothesis of the information centre, where information may be transferred about the best foraging areas. If birds huddle together close enough this may help to reduce heat loss. Being together will also enhance viligence against predators and, in the event of an attack, increased likelihood for the predator to be confused and distracted by the multitude. As if to prove the point, there is a sudden frenzied eruption as the egrets and Jackdaws take off. A hunting Marsh Harrier in the twilight makes a couple of wavering banking manoeuvres in the midst of the commotion before straightening its trajectory and drifting off and away, doubtless to its own harrier communal roost.

As the cocktail of birds calm down and disappear once more in the vegetation, they start to produce a rather enchanting cacaphony of sound: growls from the egrets and the sharper calls from the corvids. Mixed together it takes on a gentle bubbling character, rather like a thick soup simmering. I imagine the gathering of now several hundred birds fidgeting as they settle down, a mysterious myriad of interactions between neighbours. 

As I leave, with the night closing in, another sound emerges. It is the gruff "waaaa" of Black-crowned Night Herons. A string of these chunky birds fly high across the marsh from right to left. Unlike all of the activity so far, they departing from their roost and heading off to forage. The changing of the guard perhaps, or the ebb and flow of the tide. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Farewell to the Tree of Love

Our Judas Tree in flower (Claudia Kelsey)

Standing on the eastern side of our drive, with the house as a backdrop, the Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum bestowed a breathtaking performance each spring. From its bare and twisted twigs buds erupted into candyfloss-pink pea-like flowers. The blossoming tree drew admiration and from afar became a beacon, networking as it were, with other Judas Trees that had been planted beside the old houses, that like ours, had been small wineries (Lagares) on the hill which became thus named, the Sierra de los Lagares.

For the ten-days or so of the flowering period, this visual spectacle was also audible. Standing close to tree, with my eyes shut, I would be wholly enveloped by the warmth of the sound of thousands of honey bees and carpenter bees, feeding well into the spring evening on the nectar it gifted them. It was like an embrace of sheer life and vitality. As the flowers dropped and carpeted the ground below the tree, forming rosy drifts of petals, the leaf buds started to open, a succession of effort by this tree. Large, heart-shaped leaves now gave us a pool of shade - thus this tree continued to give.

Judas Tree blossom (Martin Kelsey)

Scops Owls were fond of calling from this tree and it was favoured by Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers which would quietly tap into a broken bough, often whilst I stood still close by. Great Spotted  and Iberian Green Woodpeckers would sometimes fly from the tree as I passed. Two springs ago, I watched a Wryneck singing from the topmost branches.

The tree is native to the eastern Mediterrean and its English name is claimed to be derived from the legend that it was the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Before its rendezvous with betrayal, the legend claims that its flowers were white, only becoming the colour of flesh after his suicide. This link is reinforced by the fact, here in Extremadura at least, this dramatic episode of flowering, when a bare tree transforms in the matter of a few days, often coincides with Easter. Curiously the tree sheds its leaves at Christmas time.

More prosaically, the English name may simply have come from its French name L'Arbre de Judée, meaning Judea Tree, after the region of the Middle-East where it originates. But here our neighbours call this species Árbol del Amor, the Tree of Love because of the heart-shaped leaves. And that is how we felt about this wonderful individual which stood at the entrance of our home, perhaps for more than a century.

A few days ago we returned home after a couple of nights away at a meeting. Pulling into the drive something struck me as changed, but only when getting out of the car did I realise that our beloved Tree of Love was lying on its side, wrenched and uprooted by the wind. The following day a neighbour, Miguel helped me remove the branches, and in doing so we discovered signs of massive heart wood rot deep in its trunk. This tree,  which had been such a singular feature of our lives here, had been slowly ailing.

Our Judas Tree toppled by high winds (Martin Kelsey)




Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Autumn comes in waves

Autumnn  Buttercup (Martin Kelsey)

This wet and stormy autumn has brought waves of change, dramatic in a way never matched by the unwrapping of spring. Our rewards for leaden skies, racing clouds and rain a-plenty have been a succession of simple, pleasing markers.  By mid-October the landscape transformed from beaten and scorched aridity to an almost Celtic green. Late October gave us the white blankets of autumn bulbs in flower: Serotine Narcissus and Autumn Snowflakes. Into November, rocky valley-sides became dusted yellow: a profusion of Autumn Buttercups (Ranunculus bullatus). We pass through abrupt episodes of colour, a race through a second spring, with successive bands of single hues.

And so with the arrival of birds: October witnessed surge in the flow of Common Cranes coming into Extremadura, with concentrations feeding in the damp stubble fields of maize and rice, providing spectacles which have well exceeded those in the last two years, when we suffered autumn droughts. And now, in these days of mid-November, skeins of Scandanavian Greylag Geese, precise arrow-shaped forms, dark against the dullen sky, deep in garrulous conversation, are arriving to feed along with the cranes on the stubble. Their sojourn is shorter, not even the length of winter. Before the end of January, the geese will start again their journey north.

Greylag Geese (Martin Kelsey)

Some birds make flying visits. I sat in the vehicle, with Nigel and Muriel, sheltering from the rain as we ate our sandwiches. I had parked in such a way that from where we sat we could see both a shallow bay of the Alcollarín Reservoir, and the small subsidiary pool where a crowd of Great Cormorants splashed in an exurberance of foraging, plunging from the surface and popping-up again with silvery fish clamped in their mandibles. Casually I raised my binoculars in one hand, lunch in the other, and peered through the rain-splattered window to the main bay. There were a few Lapwing and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. Then entering the field of vew was an energetic pale wader. looking somewhat bigger than the plovers.  It struck me as odd, but the combination of distance and visibility meant that I could not immediately identify it. Putting my sandwich down, I stepped out into the rain and set up the telescope. Despite being nearly 400 metres away and with the heavy rain, its identify was immediately obvious. Its rather frenzied, jerky foraging meant phalarope and its plain grey mantle pointed to Grey Pharalope (or Red Phalarope as it is also known). 

I wanted to get some photos of this: a rarity in Extremadura and only the second that I had seen in the region, but, confident that the bird would stay for a while, I got back into the car, gave Nigel and Muriel the news and suggested that we finish lunch whilst waiting for the rain to ease. This it did. Although  phalaropes are generally extremely confiding, we approached the area where the bird was feeding from behind the cover of a bush-lined ditch and stayed a good distance from it, allowing it to get gradually a bit closer to us, rather than us moving nearer. We were able to watch the bird at length. It was busily foraging the whole time, picking midges off the water surface, spinning round as it swam, its fine bill daintily working away. Sometimes, it entered shallower water, wading or came up onto the shore, where it sauntered on its surprisingly short legs

Grey Phalarope (Nigel Sprowell)

Its clean appearance with its smooth grey back and white underparts indicated an adult bird. Up in the Arctic tundra, from whence it hailed, it would have looked very different: brick-red underparts with a white facial mask and dark crown. It migrates to spend a pelagic winter in the Atlantic. Most probably the weather had brought this individual well inland (Alcollarín lies just under 300 km from the Portuguese coast), another consequence of this wet and windy season.

We withdrew and then watched it for longer from the car park. It was foraging furiously and was oblivious to the arrival beside it of a Black Stork: an extraordinary juxtaoposition of birds in the same field of view.

It was seen later that day, but other observers checking the site the following day and subsequently, failed to relocate the bird. How long it had been there before we found it can only be a guess, but I suspect that its stay would have been very brief. I hope, as I write, that this special bird is now bobbing away where it should be, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Living autumn

River Magasca early November (Martin Kelsey)

The months of October and November are the most critical in shaping the seasons ahead. After the slumbering stasis of summer, it is autumn when both figuratively and in a real sense, the flood gates open. Or should - because if the rain does not materialise, the forthcoming winter will be filled with a grey despondency, across both the landscape and eating and gnawing into the very psyche of the rural folk.

This autumn people are walking with a spring in their step. So far this season we have had already had over four times as much rain as last autumn, with plenty more expected over the next few days. This figure is based on the daily rainfall measurements taken by my good neighbour, Peter. He tells me that so far this year we have received 635 mm of rain (which is higher than the average rainfall for London, UK). The result has been a feast to the eyes that could not have contrasted more with the bleakness of last year. Rivers that were dry until early March  are already flowing. We are enjoying an autumn this year which is oozing with life.

Serotine Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

The bloom of the autumn bulbs has been spectacular, perhaps none more so than the vast swards of Serotine Narcissus, which is places give the appearance of a dusting of snow. Each individual specimen seems feeble and vulnerable. The star-like flower is held on a flimsy stem, bereft of leaves (which had grown in the spring and then withered in the summer). The merest caress of a breeze sends the structure nodding and yet collectively they can change the colour of an entire field. Intermingled with the narcissi are Autumn Squills and Autumn Snowflakes. This whole sensation is best experienced at ground-level, where these autumn gems, amongst those ghosts of summer: the dry flowerheads of the thistles, become a thousand wands of life.

Serotine Narcissus, Autumn Squill and thistle heads (Martin Kelsey)

A break in the clouds and sunshine sets off the year-end song of Woodlark, which mixes with the heraldic bugling of the incoming Common Cranes. These winter visitors, perhaps the most symbolic for us, have poured into Extremadura over the last two weeks. Thousands are now gathered on the newly harvested fields of rice and maize. In contrast the remaining birds of passage which are heading to destinations in the Sahel are quietly withdrawing from the scene. The flycatchers and Whinchats have now all gone and there are barely any Northern Wheatears still around. Their places now taken with the community of winter birds: Robins, Song Thrushes, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. There is no other season like winter here for the sheer abundance of birds in almost every landscape.

With the scrutiny of careful sight and sound, oddities can be found. A party of Common Crossbills that we found feeding in pines above a favourite picnic spot of mine was the first record in the Monfragüe National Park since 2012.
"Back of Camera" shot of Yellow-browed Warbler in Monfragüe (John Hawkins)

Two Yellow-browed Warblers have been found this autumn so far, one also in the Monfragüe National Park at the beginning of October and one at the end of the month in a hotel garden just a kilometre from where we live. For the latter I am grateful to its finder, Simon Tonkin, who quickly got a message to me about his lucky sighting. A few hours later as I watched this hyper-active little warbler, of Siberian origin (and which should have been by now on its way to south-east Asia), I marvelled at the statistical (im)probability of these sightings. There are over 15,000 square kilometres of dehesa woodland in Extremadura. Each of these rare tiny warblers were found in places where birders are habitually present. They were seen on just single days, and never again. How many more pass through the vastness of the woodlands of Extremadura wholly undetected in areas where birders never set foot?

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

High altitude visitor

Dotterel (Martin Kelsey)

Relicts of late spring, the bristling ranks of taut, brittle thistle heads stand proud over the crisp, withered grasses. Ashen-coloured tumbleweeds of wild brassicas roll on the side of the track. Save the improbably tall and spindly flowering spikes of Sea Squill which fleck the terrain, the plains are a landscape at rest.

It is an open stage, apparently empty, under an intense ocean-blue sky which carries an autumnal freshness. Cooler nights have driven the haze of summer away and the parched landscape now looks burnished russet, almost apricot gold, instead of the grey blond of August. The sweet melodic song of a Thekla Lark gently dominates, the rather stocky-looking bird slowing circling high above us. We are distracted only by the bubbling purr of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Four swing in front of us, in direct low flight, barrel-bodied with agile, pointed wings, the white flash of the underwing in sharp contrast to their black tummies. They head to a small pool in the centre of a field, which still holds water and has also attracted several Shoveler and Mallard, a couple of Snipe, a Black-winged Stilt and a Black-headed Gull.
Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Martin Kelsey)

We find a party of Little Bustards, over a dozen birds. They are flocking now for the winter, easily spotted in flight with their rapid wingbeats flashing white, but almost invisible on the ground as they stand magnificently camouflaged, seeking vegetation as tall as they are.

Further on, driving slowly in search of more bustards, I notice a bird standing motionless not far from the road. It is clearly a plover, and as soon as I stop to take a proper look, I realise that it is a juvenile Dotterel. It takes a few paces, stops and then takes a few paces again. Its age is betrayed by the broad pale fringes to the scapular feathers and tertials, coming together in an attractive lattice work patterning. This bird would most likely have hatched and developed as a chick on some bare mountain plateau, above the tree-line, perhaps in Norway, and was now making its first journey southwards. Most winter in North Africa, but a few stay in southern Spain. I pondered on the extraordinary diversity of landscapes and climates that this young bird, as well as the similarly aged Northern Wheatears and Whinchats that were perched on the fence beside the field, would encounter on their first few months of life. But there were some similiarities too with its natal habitat. These plains in Extremadura are also of relatively high altitude (averaging perhaps 500 metres above sea-level) and the Dotterel also chose the field with the sparsest vegetation, where rock broke through the thin poor soil, a desolate expanse which perhaps had evoked a memory of some distant barren northern mountain.