Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Countdown

Dehesa sunset (Martin Kelsey)
Springtime weather in deep mid-winter, barely any rain for weeks but swathes of yellow crucifers in flower, a flavour of February indeed, coating the ground of the olive groves. In places even Gum Cistus has been bearing flowers, not to be expected until well into spring.  Tree frogs give their slow, measured grating croaks, unseasonally vocal. A confused and messed-up December it seems. The Barn Swallows I saw a week ago, hawking in the bands of sunshine across a placid pool are most likely to be overwintering birds: there are always a few lingerers right through winter, House Martins as well, and it will another four or five weeks until we start seeing genuine arrivals. A Yellow Wagtail we saw last week was a surprise, and most likely too an overwintering bird. But the adult Great Spotted Cuckoo seen this afternoon by a friend nearby must surely be an early migrant. It predates my first ever by ten days (and equals the earliest ever recorded). This is a species that leaves early (few remain beyond July) and has never been recorded here in the autumn.

And yet the recognisable features of December in Extremadura are plain to see and measurable by the milestones I have in place. The first of the winter crane counts took place last week and I spent the morning on my circuit: a slow-paced two hours meander through an astonishing diversity of habitats: stubble fields of rice and maize, wet muddy fields, winter wheat, dehesas, pastures, a reservoir and the edge of pseudosteppe. Each time I found flocks of Common Crane they were counted and their habitat noted. By the end of the morning I had seen over 4,300 birds. Their favoured stubble fields were also the haunts of parties of wintering Grey Lag Geese, one of which also had three Greater White-fronted Geese present as well, much rarer visitors here. Later that day, as the sun set through the near symmetrical architecture of the oaks in dehesa, I counted over 500 cranes flying into a roosting site, in three large bands, their bugling heralding their appearance over the tree-tops.


Two days later I am undertaking my routine twice-winter survey walk through the olives groves close to home. Rising fog impedes visibility slightly, but most of the birds are detected by sound. In two hours 635 encounters take place with a total of 34 species, with Blackcaps being by far the most numerous, 127 in total - wintering birds, attracted along with the Song Thrushes to the heavily ripe olives. Resident birds too like Hawfinches and Azure-winged Magpies feast on these high-energy fruits. A few weeks ago, whilst enjoying a picnic lunch nearby, we watched a large but loose group of Azure-winged Magpies, flying through the open dehesa with their characteristic undulating flight, defining shallow, long arcs and all in a single direction. These birds were truly driven by a purpose, for within five minutes, they reappeared, this time all heading in the diametrically opposite direction, and every one was carrying an olive in its bill, all returning from a group foray in the neighbouring olive field.

Azure-winged Magpies (John Hawkins)


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