Thursday, 14 November 2013

Dotterel delight

Dotterel (Jesús Porras)
It was impossible to resist. The wonder that is the birders' grapevine (here in Extremadura through an email group) brought the news that a friend of mine, Ricardo Montero, had found a group of Dotterel about an hour or so from our house. The following day, another friend, Jesús Porras went to relocate them and posted the above photo on his Facebook page (IberianNature Guías de Naturaleza). Now Dotterel, which have the rather spendid Spanish name Chorlito Carambolo, are truly delightful birds which I have long wanted to see in Extremadura. Indeed it has been many years since I have encountered the species - I used to watch them sometimes on spring passage on the east of England. In spring, the plumage is very striking with rusty orange underparts and, like that other curious group of waders, the phalaropes, the males are duller than the females and take the lead role in incubation and care of the young. Similarly they can be unusually tame. The Dotterel is a species that breeds on high mountains and which passes through Extremadura on passage in very small numbers. They stopover at sites of thin soils, stony ground with sparse vegetation or well-grazed sward. It is thought that these resting places may be traditional, but the challenge is that the extent of such habitat in Extremadura is vast and these stopovers may be just for a few days. This means that the species goes largely undetected here, with some years no records at all, despite birders visiting suitable habitat and carefully checking fields at the right times of year.

Jesús had given me excellent directions and I got out of the car and gazed across what looked like perfect Dotterel country. A quick glance produced several Lapwing and Calandra Lark, but no sign of anything else. So I walked back along the track about a hundred metres and then systematically scanned across the fields as I returned to the car. Three Griffon Vultures and a Black Vulture had become airbourne and effortlessly rose on a hidden thermal. The sky was cloudless and the light conditions superb. I stood by the car again and this time looked again at the first area, where the habitat had seemed most promising. And there they were! A group of four Dotterel in their greyer non-breeding plumage had emerged from a belt of dry thistles onto open ground. Feeding like true plovers, they took a few paces and then stopped, then a few more paces before another stop and a peck on the ground. At least two others were further off, amongst the thistles still. I stood delighted and mesmerised by these wonderful birds, with their almost swollen creamy superciliums, black beady eyes and the suggestion of a pale necklace hanging across the breast. I was intrigued as well: are they here on a stopover, or perhaps  for the whole winter? The species winters in North Africa, but it has been known to stay in a few places  in Spain as well. This site had all the appearance of being potentially a good area. And as I watched them, memories came back of my earlier sightings, a long time ago, on fenland fields in eastern England, which apart from the sense of space, bore little similarity to these rough sparse Spanish pastures, especially since as I watched the Dotterel my ears soaked up as well the sounds of sandgrouse and a multitude of Calandra Larks. And I marvelled at the luck of Ricardo who had found these proverbial needles in the haystack and recognised his generosity at passing the news of his discovery on.

No comments: