Sunday, 29 June 2014

Squeaks and Chatters

Young White Storks in Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)

Different sounds and rather different looking birds are now making their presence felt as the year moves past the solstice.  It is as if a switch has been clicked to a different setting. The landscape had settled some time ago into its summer lull, sun-dried grasses tall on the wayside and patchily spread across the unkempt pastures. For some this is an unattractive time of year, seemingly bereft of growth, of green. But for me, the harsh conditions, perhaps even unforgiving, represent both a challenge and also a story of life. We witness nothing more than part of a cycle, with the commotion and energy of spring subsiding as a spent force. Now is a time for fruits and seeds, for a slow reabsorption of plant material, through dessication and decomposition, back to the earth. And for many of the birds now the final chapters of their own breeding cycles. By and large, song has been switched off, but instead unfamilar sounds reach our ears, from tree-tops and shrubs: begging calls of fledglings.

Wren feeding brood in Red-rumped Swallow nest (Martin Kelsey)
As I write, high-pitched squeaks from just outside the window tell me that the brood of Wrens that have been reared in the old Red-rumped Swallow's nest, are waiting for food and it will be just a matter a few days now before they too are fledged. The adults calmly come in through the open kitchen door, hopping on floor, flying up to the ceiling lamps in seach of prey. Rather more piercing "tics" come from young Hawfinchesm which along with a brood of "tew-tew"ing Greenfinches are feasting from the dried spiky heads of milk thistles, pulling out downy tufts to extract the large dark seed.

Lesser Kestrel young in Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)
In Trujillo, the Lesser Kestrel chicks are now waiting for their feeds from the roof tops. The pair of Lesser Kestrels that I have watched above a particular window on the old Bull Ring all spring have now revealed to all that they have reared a fine total of three chicks, all of them now taking short flights from the tiles. They sit waiting for a parent to return from the plains, beautifully camouflaged against the lichen-encrusted weathered terracotta. Barely visible in fact, that it is only when the parent approaches that their excitement overcomes their caution and the chattering begging calls ring out and wings flutter. Half a dozen or more adults are hanging over the building, and there will be some vocal contact from the parent to which the chicks respond. They must be able to distinguish mum or dad's call from those of their neighbours. Almost in the bat of an eyelid, the adult drops down, there is a scamble as the chicks compete for the morsel and before one can say "kestrel", the adult is gone, heading straight back to the plains for more.

Elsewhere in town, the young White Storks stand on their nests, their bills seemingly getting more orange-red each day, their legs stained scaly white from their excrement, but otherwise looking as large and as fully developed as their parents. It must now be just a matter of days before they abandon the rooftops for weeks of nomandism in flocks, concentrating in places where the food will be in plenty. Despite having started their breeding several weeks later than their cousins, the Black Storks in Monfragüe National Park also have large chicks now on their rock-face nests. The black flight feathers look well developed as they exercise their wings, even through the vestiges of down give their bodies a thorroughly scruffy look.

Black Stork chicks in Monfargüe (Patrick Kelsey)
This can be a revealing time of year when the finding of a fledged bird offers confirmation of successful breeding. This is valuable information, especially this year, which is the first of the four years' data-gathering for the next edition of the Spanish Breeding Birds Atlas. On my regular visit to the rice fields just south of us, where other signs of mid-summer astonishingly are the first returning autumn passage migrants and winter visitors (a selection of waders present appeared to be all adults - some like the Lapwings heavily in moult), a drawn-out call drew my attentiopn. Close by, beside a ditch was a juvenile Yellow Wagtail, looking quite recently fledged. It was joined a few minutes later by an adult male and they flew off together. This looked very suspiciously like a family and most probably birds that had nested in the vicinity. In Extremadura, the species is mainly a passage migrant, but this had been the second time this month that I had found juvenile birds in this habitat, and well outside the autumn passage period for them.

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