Sunday, 31 December 2017

A landscape for raptors

December's leaden skies (Martin Kelsey)
I relish the sight of troubled skies, heavy smudged charcoal, brush strokes of cinder-grey. And never more so than above the open steppes of Extremadura, bearing subtle tones of emergent green now. Westerly winds roll the banks of cloud, which fracture to allow angled beams of light to illuminate a distant dehesa, like a moving searchlight. The combination of open terrain and a vast sky creates a multi-dimensional space fully exploited by one group of birds in particular, the raptors. The Extremaduran plains are bird of prey habitat par excellence

In the first hour of daylight on a winter's morning there is movement. Multitudes of small birds are woven across the pasture. Jerky Meadow Pipits are walking, a fluster of Skylark settles, small parties of Corn Buntings tic-tic in urgent flight above us. There are White Wagtails and Lapwings on the ground. Two Thekla Larks shuffle beside a lichen-dressed piece of ancient slate. An Iberian Grey Shrike faces us on the fence, using its long-tail as a balance, with an accompanying Stonechat perched attentively just a few metres away from it. A roving, rasping party of Calandra Larks surge across the field. We bird by simply standing still and watching.

Suddenly, I hear a different sound, a high-pitched warning call and instinctively, like all the birds around me, I look up. Against the grey sky I see first of all a fluttering speck, a tiny Meadow Pipit. From the right another shape pitches in, compact and menacing. The Merlin skims across the pipit and swerves upward in an arc, then swooping downward, missing its target again. In barely a second, it has launched vertically to attempt another strike, its tail and wings spread as it brakes in pursuit of the prey. The pipit escapes. Then, as the Merlin, having overtaken the pipit, banks to plunge, another Merlin with arrow-like direct flight, enter the scene. It too swivels into attack. The Meadow Pipit disappears behind the skyline, both Merlins now following it. But the performance has not ended. One of the Merlins rises above the horizon and then dives down below it. In a perfection of timing, the second does the same, followed again by the first. It is as if they were trampoling, rising and falling, one after the other. How can the pipit possibly escape? But evidently it does because one Merlin flies off, in low direct flight, followed by the other, both looking empty-handed. 

In a nearby river valley, we watch an Otter moving upstream. It is the first time the river has flowed since the spring, so entrenched has been the drought. The heavy cloud does not bode well for sightings of large birds of prey, but perhaps because of the wind, there are Griffon Vultures gliding slowly above. Below them, a dark, longer-tailed bird rises, its wings in a shallow V and bearing a buoyant tilt. The Golden Eagle quickly gains height, pauses, closes it wings and in sheer exuberance, dives earthbound, until opening its wings again and allowing its own momentum to push it skywards once more. Again it dives down and rises, its skydance mirroring the trampoling Merlin.

The road follows the route of a Cañada Real, an ancient drovers' trail - a strip of uncultivated common land, 75 metres wide. The vegetation here is tall and withered, with scattered Retama bushes. Ahead of us, in low sweeping flight is a male Hen Harrier, a young bird, judging from the brownish tone in the middle of its back, but with gull-grey upperwings, black tips, and white underwing, neatly bordered by black on the trailing edge. We stop to watch it as it carefully quarters the verges. Its long glides are broken by a banking motion, as it stops and backtracks, prompted by a potential prey, before continuing in forward motion. It reminds me of an absent-minded pedestrian, stopping mid-stride, turning around abruptly, before changing his mind and resuming his walk.

A larger bird of prey appears to our left, caramel-coloured with dark flight feathers, fringed with white and white also on the rump. It flaps heavily before gliding, the ground falling away below it, its wings rigid and flat. It is a young Spanish Imperial Eagle. As it disappears from view, another identically marked bird approaches us from the left, taking a few flaps before it too drifts away. I feel feebly terrestrial, contemplating the space that this bird explores. We then notice another observer. Standing on a small dog's teeth of protuding rock, and resplendent with white epaulets, thick cream head with its neat black mask, is an adult Spanish Imperial. Despite its acute vision, our presence unremains unacknowledged.  I like to think that we are perhaps insignificant to it as it surveys this terrain, a landscape fit for eagles. As maybe was the cow, sitting nearby, which like us, also watched the eagle. All on a winter's day.

Spanish Imperial Eagle watched by a cow (Martin Kelsey)