Monday, 3 April 2017

orchid trickery

Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) Martin Kelsey

Spring comes tumbling in from the middle of March onwards in Extremadura, an avalanche of new birds: migrants fresh from a trans-Saharan crossing, busy and expectant. Indeed by early April I have had sightings of almost all of our summer visitors, apart from just a handful of notoriously later species. The few remaining winter visitors suddenly look out of place - Meadow Pipits appearing even more nervous and jerky than ever.

This is also peak orchid season in Extremadura, with the highest numbers of species findable that are in full and spectacular bloom. I can find orchids in flower from January to June, but late March and early April are when certain spots on the isolated strips of lime-rich soil become places of paradise. Few of these sites can be fairly described as scenic treats. Yes, I know of locations where one will find special orchids in gorgeous meadows surrounded by wild olives and imposing crags, on a slope affording views of eighty kilometres or more. But many of these sites are quite unprepossessing: scrappy corners of derelict land, litter-strewn roadside verges, thin weary almond orchards. I celebrate the presence of orchids in such places, a testament to their determination and mystery.

The name Orchid comes from the Ancient Greek órkhis, which means testicle, on account of the shape of the two tubers shown by some species. One of these tubers stores food for the plant, whilst the other is where the spring growth will occur. Orchids in our climate spend most of the year underground, using the warmth and rainfall of spring for growth, flowering and building up reserves for the following year. It is underground that the wind-blown and almost microscopic seeds encounter the fungi without which they cannot germinate, an intimate life-sustaining relationship invisible to our gaze.

The most intriguing and beguiling of them all are the bee orchids, members of the genus Ophrys. Unlike other orchids and other insect-pollinated plants where the pollinator visits through promise of a nectar reward, the bee orchids use blatant trickery. An extraordinary process of evolution has resulted in the flower mimicking the scent and to some extent the shape and colours of a female insect to bring the male in to land, vainly attempt to mate with it and then to leave with a dusting of pollen. The scent produced will be unique to a single species of insect, on which that orchid will thus depend, luring the male insect with the promise of sex.

Now is the time to see almost all of Extremadura's Ophrys orchids. A few, like the Sawfly Orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) are widespread and common, popping up with their joyful clown-like visages in meadows and along drovers' trails (see photo at top of post).

Some like the Early Spider Orchid (O.incubacea) and stunningly-patterned Woodcock Orchid (O.scolopax) can grow as tall slender plants, with flowers spaced along the stem.

Early Spider Orchid (O.incubaceaMartin Kelsey

Woodcock Orchid (O.scolopaxMartin Kelsey

The black and yellow of the Yellow Bee Orchid (O.lutea) tricks the eye in Golden Oriole-fashion, making the plant surprisingly cyptic.

 Yellow Bee Orchid (O.lutea) Martin Kelsey
The highly localised Bumblebee Orchid (O.bombyliflora) is so small and inconspiquous that one wonders whether its rarity is more about the challenge to simply detect it.

Bumblebee Orchid (O.bombylifloraMartin Kelsey

The commoner Mirror Orchid (O.speculum), also small in stature, has a bizarrely shaped flower when seen in close-up.

Mirror Orchid (O.speculumMartin Kelsey

Orchid taxonomy is both complex and fluid. Hybrids are frequent and some species produce variations in colour and patterning that both excite and puzzle the aficionados. Following locally accepted species, I have a special fondness for the Sombre Orchid group: O. fuscus, O. bilunulata and O.dyris. They stand modestly, as if awaiting your discovery, and so easy to overlook if they merely face away from your gaze. The Sombre group continues to yield more discoveries in Extremadura and more debate.

Sombre Orchid group O. fuscus Martin Kelsey

O. bilunulata Martin Kelsey

O.dyris Martin Kelsey
This Ophrys peak subsides as the ground dries and the temperature rises. In their place our focus shifts to the Serapias tongue orchids (also a fest of discovery and taxonomic challenges) as well as species at higher, milder altitudes. But the bee orchids have a swansong as I found, retracing my steps on a favourite path, weeks after my previous visit. Dessicated spikes that had bourne orchid flowers poked through withered brittle grass. I carefully walked through the crisp undergrowth until jolted by surprise with the mocking face, or so it looked, on a clean and fresh Bee Orchid (O.apifera).

Bee Orchid (O.apifera) Martin Kelsey

But nearby was something even more special. Thought to be unique to this hillside beside the town of Almaráz grows what is considered a form of Bee Orchid (O. apifera var. almaracenis), a deep blush, highly pigmented and thriving at precisely that time of year when its other cogeners were slowly shutting down.
Almaráz Bee Orchid (O. apifera var. almaracenis) Martin Kelsey

I left puzzled at what made such a distinct form to be described as a variation rather than true species, baffled by taxonomy. I wondered too whether the male insects tricked by such a distinctive-looking form would be the same as with the regular apifera. Had anyone analysed the scents produced by them? The Ophrys chapter had closed for the year, but questions that I could never answer remained.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Heading north-east

Migrating Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)

I can be anywhere in central Extremadura in late February or early March and if the weather is fine, there will be a moment late morning when I will stop what I am doing and gaze south-westward. My pause will have been demanded by an approaching, but still distant sound of cranes. I strain my eyes as I seek engagement with the flock, but experience reminds me I just need to grant myself a few seconds of patience and the birds will materialise. Mirage-like, the flock appears as a chain, with the composite birds linked in a line, or sometimes swept into a skein. As they get closer, so it becomes clearer that I am watching perhaps two hundred individual birds, but still they hold a meta-form. That is until an abrupt and noisy transmutation occurs, the shape disaggregates and the birds, chaotically at first, start spiralling. They have discovered a thermal and the benefits of lift outweigh their momentary halt in progress. Above me the flock, now several hundred metres higher than before, then undergoes a further metamorphosis, regaining its structure and composition, the blather of trumpeting subsides and with a envigourated sense of purpose the group proceeds. Their direction is a perfect north-east heading and all that remains for me to do is to cherish the moment as I watch the birds disappear into the blue.

There is nothing quite like seeing migration as it is actually happening. I had always guessed, given their orientation, they must be heading directly to Gallocanta, the well-known refuge for cranes in Aragón in north-east Spain, where they rest before the more tricky crossing of the Pyrenees. I had calculated too that a mid-morning departure from Extremadura could enable them to reach Gallocanta by evening, a distance of more than 500 kms. But it is only with the advent of satellite tracking that have we come to understand the magnificence of this migration - and it is staggering. Let me share with you the on-going story of a Lithuanian crane which spent this winter in Extremadura.

Casas de Don Pedro is a small town just east of the main rice-growing area in centre of Extremadura, at a transition between a vast expanse of dehesa and the steppe-like plains of La Serena. It lies close to the edge of the Orellana Reservoir: the biggest in the Guadiana basin in Extremadura with a surface area of over 5000 hectares, providing water mainly for the rice fields in the province of Badajoz. From the small bay of the reservoir close to the town, where there is always an interesting array of wintering birds, including sometimes local rarities like Little Gull, Greater and Lesser Scaup, one can see to the east the Sierra de las Golindrinas (the Sierra of the Swallows). I have stood beside the reservoir there and watched as, in the space of a few minutes a pair of Bonelli's Eagles cross the dehesas between the mountains and the bay, to ambush dozing Shoveler.

It was from close to Casas de Don Pedro where this Lithuanian crane set off with others at 10.25 on 28th February. By 17.53 that same day it had reached Gallocanta - a journey of about seven and a half hours. According to the Michelin routeplanner, the fastest recommended route by car would take me as long - not including stops. Since I could not have made that journey non-stop, the crane would have beaten me to Gallocanta by a very clear margin. But it is not just the capacity of cranes to migrate long distances with few breaks that is amazing, but also the speed of their flight when the conditions are good. A few days ago a young Swedish crane was recorded crossing the Pyrenees at a speed of 155 kmph!

Migrating Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)

Gallocanta is a remarkable stopover point for cranes, with birds arriving in the evenings to rest and feed-up, whilst others depart in the mornings. On the day that our Lithuanian bird left Extremadura there had been 80,000 cranes already gathered there. But our bird simply needed an overnight stay, because the following morning it left Gallocanta to cross the Pyrenees and enter France. It continued to fly a further 700 kms, reaching the Loire by the morning of 2nd March. Taking just two hours rest, it then travelled east, crossing Germany and reaching Hungary during the early hours of 3rd March, pausing to rest just before dawn close to the Danube, after a leg of 1150 kms. As I write, thanks to the tracking monitored by, and the information shared by the Common Crane Working Group I know that this bird is now resting in the Hortobagy National Park in eastern Hungary.

My winter landscape is shaped by cranes. I am never far from their sound. Their departure affects me in Extremadura, I feel bereft. Whilst the Lithuanian bird was entering eastern France, just two days after leaving Extremadura, my eyes tracked another group of cranes as I stood beside the Belén Plains near Trujillo. These cranes too were travelling north-eastwards, just embarking on their journey. As I followed them into the distance, I was distracted by a hovering Lesser Kestrel. It was a splendid male, with mother-of-pearl-toned underwings and a clean rusty-red back. It plunged, wings held together above the body, disappearing into a swathe of long grass. It emerged carrying a mole cricket which it decapitated on the wing. What acuity of vision to spot the insect in such tall and floppy vegetation! It was not alone. There were another twenty-one Lesser Kestrels, hovering in a loose group over the grasslands. These birds too had completed a journey, reaching us from West Africa. A journey, research tells us, that would have taken just four or five days.

Male Lesser Kestrel (John Hawkins)

My skyscape that day was criss-crossed by international arrivals and departures. My presence was that of a peripheral bystander, watching them in silence. They, however, were profoundly sculpting my very comprehension of  this transition. As the cranes had defined my winter, so the Lesser Kestrels will describe my spring.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Winter tones

Spanish Sparrows (Martin Kelsey)
Colours this back-end of winter are broad-brush. This is a legacy of a long drought with frosty mornings which have stifled the arrival of the early narcissus or sand-crocuses. Only in the last week have the Atlantic-grey clouds rolled in, soaking the ground. I can sense that colour is just around the corner, poised in greeting. But in the meantime though, I can step back and absorb colour as a wash, a fusion of hues.  I stop and take in the soft, gentle beige of the dry long straps of Typha leaves, each one curiously buckled at a similar point on its length, so that their tapering tips sweep downward. Perched on these folds are Spanish Sparrows. Others are lined-up on the rod-like stems that once bore the "bulrush" spike. Most are females, sitting hunched against a fierce wind which forces many to close their eyes. Their feathers are puffed, exaggerating their thickset demeanour. Their plumage matches that of their perches, an unexceptional beige, stroked on the flanks by whispers of grey and on their mantles with dark-centred, pale edged flanges.

The males strike a different pose.  They seem edgy and alert, sleeker and vigilant. Their plumage shows the miracle of wear and tear. They had moulted after breeding last year and every new body or contour feather had a fringe of soft, gossamer-like trim. Thus, at the start of autumn, they carried a dowdy look, hoary and unremarkable, unshaven. Subjected to winter elements and brushing against rough stalks as they plunged to feed in the stubble fields, each feather was coarsely abraded. Cinderella-like, the sparrows had undergone a transformation and they stood today proud. Emerging now, as these feathers wear, is a brashness of spring, the uniform of competitive struggle. Under the layers, slowly revealed, is a deep chocolate hood, a neat black eye-line and bib, set against a shock of white on the cheeks and above the eye. The abrasion still has a few more weeks to complete its work, but already I can see the rumours of dark stripes on the underparts which will strengthen and blacken.

Their patience with my presence had also become worn and with a swirl the flock siphons off, twisting in a minature murmuration to adorn another Typha clump further away, beige again on beige.

Nearby is a winter gathering site of Stone Curlew and I go to check the birds there. Partly submerged by swathes of dry grey stems, they stand motionless. They have a forlorn resigned look, inactive, statuesque. A Marsh Harrier wavers over them unannounced and this triggers an instinctive flight-response. A surge of adrenalin sets them on a short run and then they take off, a flock of surprisingly long-winged, long-necked birds, 35 of them in all.  They do not gain much height before sweeping round in a glide and bouncing down to land again, with a few quick steps to slow their momentum. They freeze, the whole group facing the same way, each one a profile, but collectively sending out a sense of determination. Then in a wonderfully choreographed moment, they simultaneously, as one, crouch, to become fixed in a half-standing, half-sitting pose. It was as if they had all been wired together.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Northward bound

Black-tailed Godwits on northward migration through Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

It is late afternoon towards the end of January. We are driving slowly along a dirt track between small rice fields. In some there are still rows of stubble and family groups of Common Cranes are quietly feeding. A rank of Greylag Geese stick their heads up, periscope-like, as we pass, grey-brown with heavy triangular light orange bills. Most of the fields, however, have already been "mashed" over by tractor, as near as ploughing that you can get in this squelching mud. The result is an expanse of shallow water. Groups of Black-headed Gulls are settled on some of these pools, with their curiously angled necks poised forwards, matching harmoniously their uptilted wing-tips, giving them a dainty demeanour as they bob about, as if they were tip-toeing on the surface.  Many of the fields seem empty, with perhaps a single Green Sandpiper, which freezes as we approach, before erupting in a shock of black and white. However, the next field we come to has action.

Here a pack of over three hundred large waders are clustered. A profusion of dry Typha in the ditch beside us offers concealment and thus we can slowly approach. We watch the birds at close quarters, hidden from their view. A low afternoon winter sun makes the birds glow against the reflected soft blue sky on the water. There is a pleasing hum of activity from the flock. We listen to a gentle murmur of nasal contact calls, soft and reassuring. I smile. The birds have the appearance of having very recently arrived. They are keeping close together. Some are sleeping but most are either preening or busy feeding, their long bills submerged, deep into the ooze, so that the water reaches their faces.  They are Black-tailed Godwits pausing in Extremadura on their journey from West Africa to Holland.

Some are starting to show the russet-orange chests of breeding plumage, but most are still in winter dress. Extremadura is one of the most important late-winter stopover areas for this species as it crosses the Iberian Peninsula. Over recent decades the availability of feeding areas in Extremadura has increased with the development of rice production. The management of the land means that during the period of the peak spring passage (late January to early March) most of the fields are wet and muddy. Tens of thousands of godwits pass through. But their highly gregarious behaviour means that to find them requires considerable searching. The area which has the highest concentration is the the central area of the rice belt in Extremadura, close to the small town of Santa Amalia. There last February we stood and watched a flock of 4000 birds, rising and banking in unison as they moved from one feeding area to the next. The fields they choose to forage in seem to be carefully selected, to the exclusion of adjacent fields that appear to our eyes as identical. Yet there must be something that tells the godwits, from one year to the next, that certain plots have a higher yield than others.

Black-tailed Godwits at Santa Amalia February 2016 (Martin Kelsey)

As I watch the birds I see that at least four are bearing coloured plastic rings on their legs. Black-tailed Godwits are being studied extensively and many are ringed by researchers. The colour-combinations that are recorded will be sent in. I will eagerly await the information that comes back: insights into the individual life-histories of such engaging birds.

Two colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Plain dawn

Winter dawn on the plains (Martin Kelsey)

Mist-grey-toned meadows are spread before me, touched by a hoar frost that had arrived overnight. Only a gentle incline nearby has escaped and looks distinctly lusher green. I muse for a moment about why the frost had not formed there. Had the dry-stone wall beside me offered enough protection from the rolling, heavier, freezing air? There is something almost sinister about the sight of a pre-dawn frost. As we sleep a nocturnal prowler is at large, an invisible slowly moving blanket of cold, gently caressing the folds and hollows of the land.

Behind me are the bold Mooresque-forms of the smooth, rounded granites of the berrocal of Trujillo and I gaze across the seemingly vast plains of Belén, gently undulating as the curves in a piece of silk. To the east, the outline of the Villuercas Mountains appears stark, brittle and monochrome whilst the massif of the Gredos to the north, whose peaks are capped by snow, murmur a soothing pale peach.

A Thekla Lark comes onto the stone wall and gives its inflected pensive call. It stands, plump with its feathers puffed out, hunch-backed against the cold. A hoarse wheezing sound from the bare tree beside it, squeezes from an equally solemn-looking Hoopoe, silhouetted. But it makes me smile, as it takes on a comic pose. Trying to preen its upper breast feathers with its absurdly long bill, it is forced into bizarre contortions, pushing its neck in one direction to try to angle the bill in another. My amusement is abruptly distracted by a blast of light as the sun suddenly edges into view above the Villuercas. On cue, a Red Kite sets out on its early morning foray, a purposeful, direct flight in the cold dawn air, propelled by deep rowing flaps: fifteen and then a glide, fourteen then a glide, seventeen then a glide, its long tail relaxed and level.

It is time to move and I return to the car and taking the narrow road that crosses the plains north-east, drive slowly onward. Swathes of small birds in low bounding flight make passage across a field and as I stop to watch I pick up the twangs of Calandra Larks and the tics of Corn Buntings. Singleton Lapwings are dotted across the terrain, whilst beyond, lined up on a horizon formed by the crest of a rise stand a group of fourteen Great Bustard. They have a perpendicular statuesque form, verticals and horizontals, exaggerated further by their cocked fanned tails.

Stopping whenever the opportunity arises to survey the surroundings from a suitable vantage point, I scan the fields with the telescope, panning right to left and back again. The low sunlight picks up the white shock of Lapwing bellies from a huge distance, I detect the motion of foraging Golden Plover in the dry grey stands of dead thistles. On rock piles, stationary grey forms are revealed to be Little Owls. Onwards I go to another viewpoint to search again.

Eventually I find them, like the distant Lapwing, the shallow sunlight highlighting their white underparts. Otherwise their quiet brown dress would conceal them wonderfully in the remnants of last year's stalks. They too are standing hunched and largely motionless, just occasionally a wing stretches to reveal a surprise of white. This group of Little Bustards comprises twenty-four birds and even though several hundreds of metres away, some are facing the right direction for me to able to count at least eight adult males. Just one of these has started to grow the feathers to produce the striking chevron black and white neck patterns of spring plumage, but the others show a clear divide between brown upper breast and white below, as well as having much less patterned backs than the females and younger birds. I log information about the habitat and location, data to be sent through to SEO/BirdLife for its nationwide winter census of this fast-declining species.

Little Bustard in winter (two males and two females/young birds) (Martin Kelsey) 

My sense of satisfaction of having found this winter group is bittersweet. On 2nd March 2006, close to where I am standing today, I had watched a flock of over 330 birds. Such has been their precipitious decline.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

This winter's tales

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

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

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

Great Bittern (Wilf Banfield)

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

Friday, 28 October 2016


Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Raymond de Smet)

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

Serotine Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

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

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (John Hawkins)

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