Sunday, 19 May 2013

Melodious May


It had been barely a week since I had last ventured across that particular stretch of plains, but in the days that had lapsed, a subtle but dramatic change had taken place. Helped by a spell of warm, sunny weather, the grass had turned. On the thin, poor soils, the green blades and flowering stalks had become yellowed. Thus was marked that start of the final chapter of spring. On those plains, the extraordinary colours of the flowering plants this spring remained, although the hues and species were shifting, but their background canvass was now burnished gold. In these fields, we will not see green grass shoots again until the autumn rains. And so this most memorable of springs moves inexorably onwards. All of the spring migrants have now arrived. This morning as I was checking the thinned-out cabbages in the vegetable garden, a cheerful, jumble of slurred notes chattered to me from the brambles: a Melodious Warbler. This bold bright-coloured warbler is a familiar bird of the garden, but for some reason they only seem to take up residence in mid-May. I have seen Melodious Warblers in Extremadura since mid-April, indeed the photo above taken by Hans-Jörg Strapp, a Swiss guest of ours, was taken a couple of weeks ago, and superbly captures the rather brash, cheeky character of this bird. Their arrival seems to echo spring: I see them elsewhere first of all, and then sure enough, they are here in the garden, bringing a cascading climax to the tumble of changes that spring gifts us. It is a bird I am particular fond of. The reason, I suppose, is that their close relative, the Icterine Warbler of northern Europe, was a typical species in my grandparents' garden in north Germany. It was a species I thus associated with summer holidays and childhood exploration in the 1960s. The song is different, although I was interested to read of research about the northward spread of the Melodious Warbler and retreat of Icterines, with an overlap of their ranges, where hybridisation occurs and their songs converge.


Standing up from the vegetable garden I can look up towards the house, with the olive grove a bewildering mass of colours, a real wild flower meadow. Like the Melodious Warbler, bright yellow seems the dominant colour!

It has been a spring like no other in terms of the plants, with the unseasonal cold and wet weather that we are currently enduring, prolonging further this visual feast. Although the main period of the lowland orchids is now over, there are still some late flowering species, such as the Bug Orchid, occuring in the damper areas of the plains.


And widespread as well are tongue orchids of various species.....


In early May, I took Mark Ferris up into the Villuercas mountains for an afternoon, rising to 1600 metres above sea-level, passing through belts of decidous Pyrenean Oak, the buds of which had hardly opened. Above the highest, stunted trees, in the scrub zone where Dunnocks sang, we found the attractive Narcissus rupicola. At lower altitudes the narcissi had finsihed flowering weeks ago.


With Mark as well, I enjoyed wonderful close views of a newly arrived White-rumped Swift at Monfragüe National Park, whilst on the rice fields, where the process of flooding and sowing is now underway we watched migrant Yellow Wagtails (including a Grey-headed form heading for Fenno-Scandanavia) and waders such as Grey Plover, also bound for the tundra. I have been back to the rice fields several times since, and each time there has been a different set of waders on northbound passage...Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, even Sanderling. the remarkable thing is that in a month's time, there is every likelihood that the first returnees will be back, in the form of Green Sandpipers and Lapwings...through more and more observations, backed up by advances like satellite-tracking, we now know that movement of birds of one form or another (migration, disperal, nomadism) is happening every month, so surprises can happen at any time. I was particularly pleased a few days ago to find a female Red-footed Falcon (a bird that nests in eastern Europe), only the seond that I have found in Extremadura (the first being a male six days later in the month last year).


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