Friday, 27 January 2017

Northward bound

Black-tailed Godwits on northward migration through Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

It is late afternoon towards the end of January. We are driving slowly along a dirt track between small rice fields. In some there are still rows of stubble and family groups of Common Cranes are quietly feeding. A rank of Greylag Geese stick their heads up, periscope-like, as we pass, grey-brown with heavy triangular light orange bills. Most of the fields, however, have already been "mashed" over by tractor, as near as ploughing that you can get in this squelching mud. The result is an expanse of shallow water. Groups of Black-headed Gulls are settled on some of these pools, with their curiously angled necks poised forwards, matching harmoniously their uptilted wing-tips, giving them a dainty demeanour as they bob about, as if they were tip-toeing on the surface.  Many of the fields seem empty, with perhaps a single Green Sandpiper, which freezes as we approach, before erupting in a shock of black and white. However, the next field we come to has action.

Here a pack of over three hundred large waders are clustered. A profusion of dry Typha in the ditch beside us offers concealment and thus we can slowly approach. We watch the birds at close quarters, hidden from their view. A low afternoon winter sun makes the birds glow against the reflected soft blue sky on the water. There is a pleasing hum of activity from the flock. We listen to a gentle murmur of nasal contact calls, soft and reassuring. I smile. The birds have the appearance of having very recently arrived. They are keeping close together. Some are sleeping but most are either preening or busy feeding, their long bills submerged, deep into the ooze, so that the water reaches their faces.  They are Black-tailed Godwits pausing in Extremadura on their journey from West Africa to Holland.

Some are starting to show the russet-orange chests of breeding plumage, but most are still in winter dress. Extremadura is one of the most important late-winter stopover areas for this species as it crosses the Iberian Peninsula. Over recent decades the availability of feeding areas in Extremadura has increased with the development of rice production. The management of the land means that during the period of the peak spring passage (late January to early March) most of the fields are wet and muddy. Tens of thousands of godwits pass through. But their highly gregarious behaviour means that to find them requires considerable searching. The area which has the highest concentration is the the central area of the rice belt in Extremadura, close to the small town of Santa Amalia. There last February we stood and watched a flock of 4000 birds, rising and banking in unison as they moved from one feeding area to the next. The fields they choose to forage in seem to be carefully selected, to the exclusion of adjacent fields that appear to our eyes as identical. Yet there must be something that tells the godwits, from one year to the next, that certain plots have a higher yield than others.

Black-tailed Godwits at Santa Amalia February 2016 (Martin Kelsey)

As I watch the birds I see that at least four are bearing coloured plastic rings on their legs. Black-tailed Godwits are being studied extensively and many are ringed by researchers. The colour-combinations that are recorded will be sent in. I will eagerly await the information that comes back: insights into the individual life-histories of such engaging birds.

Two colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits (Martin Kelsey)

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Plain dawn

Winter dawn on the plains (Martin Kelsey)

Mist-grey-toned meadows are spread before me, touched by a hoar frost that had arrived overnight. Only a gentle incline nearby has escaped and looks distinctly lusher green. I muse for a moment about why the frost had not formed there. Had the dry-stone wall beside me offered enough protection from the rolling, heavier, freezing air? There is something almost sinister about the sight of a pre-dawn frost. As we sleep a nocturnal prowler is at large, an invisible slowly moving blanket of cold, gently caressing the folds and hollows of the land.

Behind me are the bold Mooresque-forms of the smooth, rounded granites of the berrocal of Trujillo and I gaze across the seemingly vast plains of Belén, gently undulating as the curves in a piece of silk. To the east, the outline of the Villuercas Mountains appears stark, brittle and monochrome whilst the massif of the Gredos to the north, whose peaks are capped by snow, murmur a soothing pale peach.

A Thekla Lark comes onto the stone wall and gives its inflected pensive call. It stands, plump with its feathers puffed out, hunch-backed against the cold. A hoarse wheezing sound from the bare tree beside it, squeezes from an equally solemn-looking Hoopoe, silhouetted. But it makes me smile, as it takes on a comic pose. Trying to preen its upper breast feathers with its absurdly long bill, it is forced into bizarre contortions, pushing its neck in one direction to try to angle the bill in another. My amusement is abruptly distracted by a blast of light as the sun suddenly edges into view above the Villuercas. On cue, a Red Kite sets out on its early morning foray, a purposeful, direct flight in the cold dawn air, propelled by deep rowing flaps: fifteen and then a glide, fourteen then a glide, seventeen then a glide, its long tail relaxed and level.

It is time to move and I return to the car and taking the narrow road that crosses the plains north-east, drive slowly onward. Swathes of small birds in low bounding flight make passage across a field and as I stop to watch I pick up the twangs of Calandra Larks and the tics of Corn Buntings. Singleton Lapwings are dotted across the terrain, whilst beyond, lined up on a horizon formed by the crest of a rise stand a group of fourteen Great Bustard. They have a perpendicular statuesque form, verticals and horizontals, exaggerated further by their cocked fanned tails.

Stopping whenever the opportunity arises to survey the surroundings from a suitable vantage point, I scan the fields with the telescope, panning right to left and back again. The low sunlight picks up the white shock of Lapwing bellies from a huge distance, I detect the motion of foraging Golden Plover in the dry grey stands of dead thistles. On rock piles, stationary grey forms are revealed to be Little Owls. Onwards I go to another viewpoint to search again.

Eventually I find them, like the distant Lapwing, the shallow sunlight highlighting their white underparts. Otherwise their quiet brown dress would conceal them wonderfully in the remnants of last year's stalks. They too are standing hunched and largely motionless, just occasionally a wing stretches to reveal a surprise of white. This group of Little Bustards comprises twenty-four birds and even though several hundreds of metres away, some are facing the right direction for me to able to count at least eight adult males. Just one of these has started to grow the feathers to produce the striking chevron black and white neck patterns of spring plumage, but the others show a clear divide between brown upper breast and white below, as well as having much less patterned backs than the females and younger birds. I log information about the habitat and location, data to be sent through to SEO/BirdLife for its nationwide winter census of this fast-declining species.

Little Bustard in winter (two males and two females/young birds) (Martin Kelsey) 

My sense of satisfaction of having found this winter group is bittersweet. On 2nd March 2006, close to where I am standing today, I had watched a flock of over 330 birds. Such has been their precipitious decline.