Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Extremadura on foot

Marsh Harrier (John Hawkins)
I had been walking for two hours along a track across the mixed farming landscape that makes the plains of Extremadura so rich for birdlife. The path took me down beside a small pool. The view across the water was staggering, the surface was bristling with duck, almost all of them Teal, giving their sharp cracking calls. I tensed, not wanting to disturb them. Those at the edge of the water nearest to me, took off momentarily, splashing down again in the water after barely a few metres in the air. I relaxed, the duck clearly had no interest to move on. Those on the bank dozed or preened, whilst those on the water milled around, and the scene was reminiscent of slow-motion dodgems at a fairground, seemingly random movements, which brought back memories of smoke particles, Brownian motion and school physics. They were tightly packed on the water and I made an attempt to count them: my estimate reached 1600 Teal alone, along with other duck such as Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity at the other end of the pool and again a margin of Teal took off for a short flight into the relative safety of the crowded centre. A Marsh Harrier had appeared and was cruising low above the opposite bank, then some more panic amongst the duck as an adult Peregrine Falcon hurtled into view. Despite the sudden appearance of these two raptors the duck appeared quickly almost nonchalant. This must have been because the raptors seemed more interested in each other, rather than a potential meal. The Peregrine sharply turned and twisted, tail splayed as it mobbed the Marsh Harrier, which rolled in defence. Up spun the falcon, to gain height and then stooped in feigned attack on the harrier. I stood alone on my track, a silent witness.

All week I had been on foot in Extremadura, exploring different habitats and landscapes, with the purpose of surveying birds, but with the reward to making daily discoveries, insights and an intimacy with wildlife that only the observer on foot can experience. Twice I stood to watch dog foxes saunter past, oblivious of my presence and once I engaged in a staring contest with a Roe Deer, under the autumnal colours in a wood of Pyrenean Oak. It took me back to childhood forays, setting off to walk alone in copses, field edges and along riverbanks. I walked paths that were unknown to me, having just a map as a guide, some fruit in my pocket. On most days here in Extremadura, my walks took me across plains, hillsides and forests where I could walk for hours without meeting another person. But this was how I came across wintering flocks of Little Bustard, in what seemed unpromising terrain, or admiredthe sight of a two male Bullfinch, a rare winter visitor to my part of Extremadura, deep in a shady, bramble-filled gully.

One of many trails across Extremadura (John Hawkins)
The unfamiliar terrain added the sense of adventure, the light touch of a frisson of anxiety if the path seemed to disappear or my way was impeded by a fence. But such moments were rare - Extremadura is indeed great walking country with public rights of way criss-crossing the landscape. Many of these trails are centuries old, dating back to the early Middle Ages, when the guild of drovers, the Mesta, were granted rights to exercise their trade through ribbons of Common land, a network of byways, with a nomenclature designated by their width. The only challenge today is that many of the smaller trails and paths are poorly marked, if at all, which makes them very hard to find. Hence the impression that some visitors to Extremadura have of a landscape that is enclosed and inaccessible. It takes confidence to set off down tracks in woodland, and sometimes having to return after just a few hundred metres because what seemed a promising walk ended in someone's property. Luckily more information is now available on the internet, and some of the local councils have been investing in signposting some very attractive walks. I welcome these initiatives hugely, but much as painted signposts can reassure, I will always also explore those unmarked paths, exercising my rights to feel the personal reward of discovery and solitude.

Walking in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

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