Saturday, 10 August 2013

Bustards in the burnished gold

Great Bustard August 2013
High summer on the plains of Extremadura and with the afternoon temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius in the shade - and out on the plains there is none - the only time to be out is early morning or evening. But well worth the effort it is to be out in this landscape in early August. There is a heavy stillness, languid, silence, quite unlike the audio feast of spring. No larks or Corn Buntings singing, just the short flight call as a feeding party of buntings fly over. Everything seems in slow motion. A loose group of Great Bustards, scattered across the burnished gold of the dry grasslands in dawn light, make measured strides as they search for food. Later on they will try to reduce exposure to the heat by sitting on the ground, resting, stationary. Their stately gait is emphasised by their set-square shape: their neck at right angles to their long horizontal body. A juvenile Peregrine stands on a rock,but it is difficult to see whether it has prey, but I suspect it was out even earlier than me and is holding its breakfast in its talons. The sky is cloudless and the blue deepens as the sun rises higher. A purring bubbling sound comes from somewhere above me: Black-bellied Sandgrouse.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse (John Hawkins)
Their distinctive call is both far-carrying and difficult to pin-point. Just by getting a sense where the call is coming from as its source moves helps me eventually to locate the small group. They are rather pot-bellied, but their pointed-wings makes them skillful fliers, and they wheel and then glide down to disappear behind a mound, where there is likely to be a pool to provide them their morning drink. Across the empty plains drifts a buoyant Montagu's Harrier, a bird fledged this year with a shock of orange on the underparts. The building heat radiating from the ground gives it all the lift it needs to quarter the grasslands without a single flap of its wings.

White Storks August 2013
In several places bands of White Stork stand in closed groups, appearing to be resting rather than feeding. These may well be birds on southward migration (storks have already been crossing the straits of Gibrater from Europe into North Africa), roosting over night on the plains and soon to take off again as the thermals develop.  I head off too, for my breakfast, and it is only then as I start the drive home that I realize that I have not seen a single Black Kite. This will have been the first morning out in the field in five months without Black Kites. They are one of the earlier summer visitors to depart and clearly this abundant bird has slipped away, unnoticed, over the last few days, heading south for Africa. Sometimes it is what you don't see rather than what you do that gives you the message of seasons on the move.

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