Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Autumn comes in waves

Autumnn  Buttercup (Martin Kelsey)

This wet and stormy autumn has brought waves of change, dramatic in a way never matched by the unwrapping of spring. Our rewards for leaden skies, racing clouds and rain a-plenty have been a succession of simple, pleasing markers.  By mid-October the landscape transformed from beaten and scorched aridity to an almost Celtic green. Late October gave us the white blankets of autumn bulbs in flower: Serotine Narcissus and Autumn Snowflakes. Into November, rocky valley-sides became dusted yellow: a profusion of Autumn Buttercups (Ranunculus bullatus). We pass through abrupt episodes of colour, a race through a second spring, with successive bands of single hues.

And so with the arrival of birds: October witnessed surge in the flow of Common Cranes coming into Extremadura, with concentrations feeding in the damp stubble fields of maize and rice, providing spectacles which have well exceeded those in the last two years, when we suffered autumn droughts. And now, in these days of mid-November, skeins of Scandanavian Greylag Geese, precise arrow-shaped forms, dark against the dullen sky, deep in garrulous conversation, are arriving to feed along with the cranes on the stubble. Their sojourn is shorter, not even the length of winter. Before the end of January, the geese will start again their journey north.

Greylag Geese (Martin Kelsey)

Some birds make flying visits. I sat in the vehicle, with Nigel and Muriel, sheltering from the rain as we ate our sandwiches. I had parked in such a way that from where we sat we could see both a shallow bay of the Alcollarín Reservoir, and the small subsidiary pool where a crowd of Great Cormorants splashed in an exurberance of foraging, plunging from the surface and popping-up again with silvery fish clamped in their mandibles. Casually I raised my binoculars in one hand, lunch in the other, and peered through the rain-splattered window to the main bay. There were a few Lapwing and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. Then entering the field of vew was an energetic pale wader. looking somewhat bigger than the plovers.  It struck me as odd, but the combination of distance and visibility meant that I could not immediately identify it. Putting my sandwich down, I stepped out into the rain and set up the telescope. Despite being nearly 400 metres away and with the heavy rain, its identify was immediately obvious. Its rather frenzied, jerky foraging meant phalarope and its plain grey mantle pointed to Grey Pharalope (or Red Phalarope as it is also known). 

I wanted to get some photos of this: a rarity in Extremadura and only the second that I had seen in the region, but, confident that the bird would stay for a while, I got back into the car, gave Nigel and Muriel the news and suggested that we finish lunch whilst waiting for the rain to ease. This it did. Although  phalaropes are generally extremely confiding, we approached the area where the bird was feeding from behind the cover of a bush-lined ditch and stayed a good distance from it, allowing it to get gradually a bit closer to us, rather than us moving nearer. We were able to watch the bird at length. It was busily foraging the whole time, picking midges off the water surface, spinning round as it swam, its fine bill daintily working away. Sometimes, it entered shallower water, wading or came up onto the shore, where it sauntered on its surprisingly short legs

Grey Phalarope (Nigel Sprowell)

Its clean appearance with its smooth grey back and white underparts indicated an adult bird. Up in the Arctic tundra, from whence it hailed, it would have looked very different: brick-red underparts with a white facial mask and dark crown. It migrates to spend a pelagic winter in the Atlantic. Most probably the weather had brought this individual well inland (Alcollarín lies just under 300 km from the Portuguese coast), another consequence of this wet and windy season.

We withdrew and then watched it for longer from the car park. It was foraging furiously and was oblivious to the arrival beside it of a Black Stork: an extraordinary juxtaoposition of birds in the same field of view.

It was seen later that day, but other observers checking the site the following day and subsequently, failed to relocate the bird. How long it had been there before we found it can only be a guess, but I suspect that its stay would have been very brief. I hope, as I write, that this special bird is now bobbing away where it should be, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Living autumn

River Magasca early November (Martin Kelsey)

The months of October and November are the most critical in shaping the seasons ahead. After the slumbering stasis of summer, it is autumn when both figuratively and in a real sense, the flood gates open. Or should - because if the rain does not materialise, the forthcoming winter will be filled with a grey despondency, across both the landscape and eating and gnawing into the very psyche of the rural folk.

This autumn people are walking with a spring in their step. So far this season we have had already had over four times as much rain as last autumn, with plenty more expected over the next few days. This figure is based on the daily rainfall measurements taken by my good neighbour, Peter. He tells me that so far this year we have received 635 mm of rain (which is higher than the average rainfall for London, UK). The result has been a feast to the eyes that could not have contrasted more with the bleakness of last year. Rivers that were dry until early March  are already flowing. We are enjoying an autumn this year which is oozing with life.

Serotine Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

The bloom of the autumn bulbs has been spectacular, perhaps none more so than the vast swards of Serotine Narcissus, which is places give the appearance of a dusting of snow. Each individual specimen seems feeble and vulnerable. The star-like flower is held on a flimsy stem, bereft of leaves (which had grown in the spring and then withered in the summer). The merest caress of a breeze sends the structure nodding and yet collectively they can change the colour of an entire field. Intermingled with the narcissi are Autumn Squills and Autumn Snowflakes. This whole sensation is best experienced at ground-level, where these autumn gems, amongst those ghosts of summer: the dry flowerheads of the thistles, become a thousand wands of life.

Serotine Narcissus, Autumn Squill and thistle heads (Martin Kelsey)

A break in the clouds and sunshine sets off the year-end song of Woodlark, which mixes with the heraldic bugling of the incoming Common Cranes. These winter visitors, perhaps the most symbolic for us, have poured into Extremadura over the last two weeks. Thousands are now gathered on the newly harvested fields of rice and maize. In contrast the remaining birds of passage which are heading to destinations in the Sahel are quietly withdrawing from the scene. The flycatchers and Whinchats have now all gone and there are barely any Northern Wheatears still around. Their places now taken with the community of winter birds: Robins, Song Thrushes, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. There is no other season like winter here for the sheer abundance of birds in almost every landscape.

With the scrutiny of careful sight and sound, oddities can be found. A party of Common Crossbills that we found feeding in pines above a favourite picnic spot of mine was the first record in the Monfragüe National Park since 2012.
"Back of Camera" shot of Yellow-browed Warbler in Monfragüe (John Hawkins)

Two Yellow-browed Warblers have been found this autumn so far, one also in the Monfragüe National Park at the beginning of October and one at the end of the month in a hotel garden just a kilometre from where we live. For the latter I am grateful to its finder, Simon Tonkin, who quickly got a message to me about his lucky sighting. A few hours later as I watched this hyper-active little warbler, of Siberian origin (and which should have been by now on its way to south-east Asia), I marvelled at the statistical (im)probability of these sightings. There are over 15,000 square kilometres of dehesa woodland in Extremadura. Each of these rare tiny warblers were found in places where birders are habitually present. They were seen on just single days, and never again. How many more pass through the vastness of the woodlands of Extremadura wholly undetected in areas where birders never set foot?

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

High altitude visitor

Dotterel (Martin Kelsey)

Relicts of late spring, the bristling ranks of taut, brittle thistle heads stand proud over the crisp, withered grasses. Ashen-coloured tumbleweeds of wild brassicas roll on the side of the track. Save the improbably tall and spindly flowering spikes of Sea Squill which fleck the terrain, the plains are a landscape at rest.

It is an open stage, apparently empty, under an intense ocean-blue sky which carries an autumnal freshness. Cooler nights have driven the haze of summer away and the parched landscape now looks burnished russet, almost apricot gold, instead of the grey blond of August. The sweet melodic song of a Thekla Lark gently dominates, the rather stocky-looking bird slowing circling high above us. We are distracted only by the bubbling purr of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Four swing in front of us, in direct low flight, barrel-bodied with agile, pointed wings, the white flash of the underwing in sharp contrast to their black tummies. They head to a small pool in the centre of a field, which still holds water and has also attracted several Shoveler and Mallard, a couple of Snipe, a Black-winged Stilt and a Black-headed Gull.
Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Martin Kelsey)

We find a party of Little Bustards, over a dozen birds. They are flocking now for the winter, easily spotted in flight with their rapid wingbeats flashing white, but almost invisible on the ground as they stand magnificently camouflaged, seeking vegetation as tall as they are.

Further on, driving slowly in search of more bustards, I notice a bird standing motionless not far from the road. It is clearly a plover, and as soon as I stop to take a proper look, I realise that it is a juvenile Dotterel. It takes a few paces, stops and then takes a few paces again. Its age is betrayed by the broad pale fringes to the scapular feathers and tertials, coming together in an attractive lattice work patterning. This bird would most likely have hatched and developed as a chick on some bare mountain plateau, above the tree-line, perhaps in Norway, and was now making its first journey southwards. Most winter in North Africa, but a few stay in southern Spain. I pondered on the extraordinary diversity of landscapes and climates that this young bird, as well as the similarly aged Northern Wheatears and Whinchats that were perched on the fence beside the field, would encounter on their first few months of life. But there were some similiarities too with its natal habitat. These plains in Extremadura are also of relatively high altitude (averaging perhaps 500 metres above sea-level) and the Dotterel also chose the field with the sparsest vegetation, where rock broke through the thin poor soil, a desolate expanse which perhaps had evoked a memory of some distant barren northern mountain.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Gentle dawn

Great Bustard on the late-summer plains (Martin Kelsey)
There was no fanfare of bird song to greet dawn on the plains this morning, just the caress of distant sheeps' bells. Late summer days start gently. I stood to watch the roseate sun break the horizon and rise until the orb was entirely in view, with just a gossamer strand of cloud breaking its purity. In lieu of sound there was purposeful motion. Strings of Cattle Egrets ventured forth from their roosts in search of grazing sheep, probably heading back to same field that they foraged in the day before. Packs of Spotless Starlings sped low across the flaxen dried grasses, landing too amongst livestock. Almost all appeared to be juvenile birds, entering puberty as it were, with the oily black feathers of adulthood growing amongst grey brown juvenile plumage, like adolescent bumfluff on the chin. A male Montagu's Harrier crossed my vision, in a long low glide, wavering in unseen currents, without a single flap of the wings, until it banked and turned, plunging out of sight.

There were flurries of Calandra Larks, with buzzing, tweezling calls, some groups almost a hundred strong. A party of twelve Greater Short-toed Larks rose from a strip of plough, delivering short, dry rattles, befitting the landscape. Lesser Kestrels were perched along the fence beside the track, eleven birds, waiting for the sun to gain a little more height before spreading themselves across the field, hovering. An all important departure awaits them soon, a five-day flight to West Africa - they need all the nourishment they can get. Over the crest of a rise, heads and necks appeared, attached, as it became clear just a few seconds later, to heavy bodies held in horizontal carriage: Great Bustards. Silently they spread themselves across the hillside, sixteen of them, appearing as little more than silhouettes against the light. Diagnostically they portrayed themselves as horizontals (the head and body) and verticals (the neck, legs and tail), a bird measured in right-angles, striding slowly across the meadow in dawn's gloaming. Their stately, measured strides had a Jurassic-era gait.

On one pylon sat a Short-toed Eagle waiting for the first movements of snakes, whilst on another is an adult Peregrine. The eagle, like the Lesser Kestrels is poised for departure, for a trans-Saharan crossing, whilst the Peregrine is newly arrived and perhaps may stay around all winter. Its slightly buffish-toned underparts suggests that it is of the local race brookei, a bird merely moving out from nearby breeding haunts. I am struck by the length of its toes, a feature that I had not appreciated before, presumably well-adapted for grabbing out to seize birds in flight.
Peregrine (Martin Kelsey)

As the sun gains height, I return home and complete the annual task that I had started yesterday. With a small axe, I chop off the suckers that have erupted from the base of the olives. One by one, each of the trees are smartened-up and cleaned. This will make harvesting in the winter much easier, ensuring that the net laid out below the tree does not get snared. As the temperature rises to the mid 30s, it is hot work, but deeply satisfying. I look back at the grove with the job finished, the broad base of the trunk of each tree now clearly visible, its own landscape now recovered. This characteristic pear-shaped bole is probably the result of the decades of scar tissue from this annual piece of work.
Our olive grove, tidied-up and ready for the autumn (Martin Kelsey)

I stop and pay homage to my favourite of the olive trees. It offers a good yield of olives each year and its massive base is easy to clean because it is solid with no large cavities where the suckers emerge like forests and can be difficult to remove. Its only aperture is one chosen by a pair of Hoopoes. Here they nest every year.  Another good reason to venerate this noble tree.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Visitors

A flock of Curlew Sandpipers with a Dunlin (David Lindo)

Stealthily under cover of darkness they move. And finding them in the first light of day helps me break the stasis of summer.  The season seems sluggish by the end of July. The afternoon spike of heat pushes all life to siesta. All appears still, even the sky is empty. The nights are relatively silent, compared to the amphibian and strident mole cricket choruses of late winter and spring, a gentle soporific hum of crickets broken only by the monotonous poot of Scops Owls. And yet across the skies at night, birds are moving.

Remarkably, shorebirds that were in the Siberian arctic perhaps just a couple of weeks ago are opting to cross the interior of the Iberian peninsular, rather than follow coastlines down to their African destinations. We came across yesterday a group of 13 Curlew Sandpipers,  all still showing their russet summer dress. They were feeding alongside some Little Stints and Dunlin. All were adults that had already finished nesting, or had failed to do so successfully, and were pausing en route to their wintering grounds. Just twelve weeks ago I was watching three Curlew Sandpipers feeding on a pool beside the rice fields in the centre of Extremadura, also along with Dunlin and Little Stint, taking a short break in their journey northwards. Now it was happening all over again, the birds now heading south. The modern landscape of the wet rice fields and their associated reservoirs have provided a significant resource for these waders. Have the numbers of shorebirds crossing Spain in the full blast of summer increased since their discovery of these feeding places, or did their ancestors simply make use of the existing water's edges, crowding along river banks and river islands?

Migration is happening year round in Extremadura. There is not a single month when birds are not on the move. The return passage of high-latitude waders starts in June with the arrival of Green Sandpipers fresh from boreal forests and marshes.  In July, the departure of White Storks and Black Kites is already underway. These latter two species will be migrating during the day, but waders and many of the smaller birds like warblers will be flying at night. Some of this migration across Iberia is quite astonishing. There is evidence that marine ducks like Common Scoter wintering in the Atlantic off the North African coast could be making nocturnal non-stop flights across the peninsular, reaching the Bay of Biscay the following day (see the post by Magnus Robb in May 2017 in soundapproach.co.uk). Unlike the waders seeking stopover sites for feeding, some of these migrants would only be detected if they had been forced to abort their flight at some point during the night. This might account for the my discovery a few years ago of a Common Scoter at the Sierra Brava reservoir in early summer.  Unless as Magnus describes, one is tuned-in to their flight calls. On one night in early May I heard a flock of Ringed Plovers flying high over our house.

A group of juvenile Audouin's Gulls in the mist (Martin Kelsey)

Another phenomenon is now being recognised as regular in the depths of summer in Extremadura. This is the appearance of juvenile Audouin's Gulls on reservoirs in our region. This is a coastal species of the western Mediterranean. After the breeding season there appears to be a dispersal of juvenile birds with several records, mainly in July, every year in Extremadura. I first witnessed this movement in 2015 when I found one and then subsequently a second bird at my local patch at Alcollarín Reservoir. This year, there had been a couple of reports of birds in southern Extremadura and my birding mate, David Lindo, found three at a site near Mérida. At my first opportunity to go, I went down to Alcollarín. It was dawn and despite the sky being clear at home, I arrived at the reservoir to find thick fog. I made my habitual stop to start the scan the water, but visibility was extremely poor. As I was wondering what to do, I caught sight of four juvenile gulls disppearing into the mist. All I could see of them was their rather long-winged and elegant shape, overall dark plumage and a distinctive white "V" on the base of the tail. I was almost certain that they were indeed Audouin's Gulls but frustratingly they seemed to have gone. I spent the next hour checking places along the bank where gulls often rest, but every stop drew a blank. I had just five minutes left before having to head back home, so I returned towards the place where I had started. On my way there, out on the water, I could see a group of dark gulls swimming. There were 13 of them. Despite the mist which gradually started to close in, I managed prolonged enough views of them to confirm my original  suspicion.  When one flapped its wing to show the diagnostic white panel in the centre of the underwing, therewas no doubt at all. At that moment a Black Kite flew low over them and they all took off. Gracefully the flock of Audouin's Gulls circled around in front of me before veering off towards the centre of the water body, disappearing again in the fog.

Juvenile Audouin's Gulls in flight (Martin Kelsey)

The following morning I was back, this time under perfect conditions. I spent two hours counting duck and grebes (including an amazing 570 Little Grebe), but of the Audouin's Gulls there was not a sign. I could only wonder where that enigmatic and evocative group of 13 had gone to.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Two mornings with dragons

Green Hooktail (Martin Kelsey)

I almost gave up before I arrived. Despite the promised sunny weather (from two independent meteorological sources no less), the day dawned heavily overcast and windy. I had given myself two mornings to visit two riverine sites to explore for dragonflies. The expected temperatures were going to be ideal: warm enough for insect activity but not too hot to be a constraint on my activities. Last year with the prolonged heatwave we suffered, I visited the Guadiana River in search for dragonflies and had to adjourn to the car every ten minutes to drink cold water, so fierce was the mid 40sºC temperatures.  However, the low cloud was not encouraging and halfway on my journey I was poised to turn back, but something kept me going. Providence or serendipity - either way, I arrived at my first stop with the clouds breaking and sunshine bringing life and reflections to the riverside.
Ibor River (Martin Kelsey)

I was at the Ibor River, a tributary of the Tagus in eastern Extremadura, fed by streams from the gloriously folded Ibores mountains. The banks were lined by alders, offering patches of shade over deep pools. As I stood, a Kingfisher plopped into the water just a few metres away. It emerged with a gleam of silver in its bill and flew close past me. I was sure that it had not seen me at all. There were shallows as well, with rounded stones, some with bird droppings, probably from the Grey Wagtail that bounced upstream. Downstream, there was a small barrier across the flow which had created a deeper pool. Here the bank had a cemented surface and there were sun-shades: one of the numerous natural swimming pools that offer locals and visitors alike a refreshing respite from Extremaduran summers. I had deliberately arrived before the bathers. I was less concerned about any disturbance they may cause the dragonflies, but more from a sense of decorum: I would be stealthily working the river bank with my binoculars and camera......
Large Pincertail (Martin Kelsey)

I was delighted to discover that the dragonflies were busy as I approached the water's edge. Two species of Pincertails (Large and Small) made sorties out over the open water of the pool, often climaxing in a chase, before returning to favoured water-smoothed stones. Three species of Demoiselles with their stunning metallic-hued bodies and pigmented semaphore wings, perched on vertical stems of emergent vegetation in between their graceful flights low over the water. As I made my way through thicker vegetation I disturbed Western Willow Spreadwings, which almost as quickly returned to their resting spots.
Small Pincertail (Martin Kelsey)

A movement caught my eye and I was fortunate to get sufficient enough of a view to see where the insect had landed. Deep in shade, it hung vertically: the enigmatic Western Spectre, a species that will be usually well hidden during the day, foraging mainly in the evening.
Western Spectre (Martin Kelsey)

Returning to the riverside, I stood to watch the Demoiselles. I noticed a Black-tailed Skimmer being chased by a smaller, rather pugnacious dragonfly. It even swerved to chase off a Blue Emperor as well. Unlike the Pincertails, it was constantly on the move, patrolling incessantly a ten-metre strip of the bank where I stood, backwards and forwards. It was usually about 30 cms above the water surface and within a metre from the bank. Occasionally it would veer off in pursuit, chasing other dragonflies across the width of the river, or high above me over the bank. I was intrigued both by this distinctive behaviour, but also by its identity. It was not a species I had seen before, but its persistent activity meant that it was not going to perch, so getting a decent image was out of the question. So I put my camera aside and watched.  What was striking were its vivid emerald-green eyes and metallic thorax. The abdomen was rather dark, but when it flew close to me, I would see a row of orange markings along its length. These features literally named the species for me: an Orange-spotted Emerald.

Bathers were gathering and I felt it prudent to make a discreet exit, with thoughts already in my head for a return to this site to try to photograph this beauty, a species known in Extremadura only from the extreme north-west of the region and in this zone of the Ibores.
River Tiétar (Martin Kelsey)

The following morning I explored a very different riverine habitat. North of Monfragüe National Park, the River Tiétar crosses a wide flood plain of intensive agriculture dominated by tobacco and peppers. The banks are dressed by willows and the river by mid-summer has shallows with vast islands of sands and gravels, breeding grounds for Little Ringed Plovers and foraging habitat for Black Storks. I did not see a single person during my two-hour stay. Crossing onto a river island, I trudged across the beach, my sandals filling with coarse grains of sand. There were a few hoof prints from cattle and several otter spraints, but dragonflies were in abundance. The commonest was the Violet Dropwing, along with Broad Scarlets. A Lesser Emperor was ovipositing in a calm channel running between two sand banks. She scouted the edge of the water, pausing to plunge almost half the entire length of her abdomen into the water and then moved to repeat the whole process at another spot nearby.
Lesser Emperor (Martin Kelsey)

I looked again out onto the broad expanse of the river just upstream from a bank of gravel that had been bulldozed two-thirds of the way across. Two dragonflies were chasing each other in rapid diagonals over the water surface. They were rather green with rather orange-tipped swollen abdomen. I felt of a surge of excitement. These were different, but like the previous day's Emerald, showed no sign of wanting to perch.

I trudged onward across the sand, my feet now pressed by the grit embedded inside the sandals. A sparse patch of vegetation, like a minature oasis, lay in my path. I caught sight of movement and tracking it found where the dragonfly had landed - a small bleached twig. It was the same as I had seen speeding over the water: a fine male Green Hooktail, only the second time I had ever seen one (see photo at top of this entry). This has a very restricted distribution: pockets in the Iberian Peninsula, Corsica, Sardinia, southern Italy, Sicily and a few areas of north-west Africa. It had been my target species of the day.

Over these two consecutive mornings, I had spent a total of four hours at three sites (I paid a quick visit the first morning to a nearby stream which has long been a favourite spot of mine). I had seen no fewer than 27 species of dragonfly and damselfly, without too much effort (I had covered barely two kilometres in total). But most of that time was not spent walking, it was spent standing (or sitting) watching and absorbing the differences in behaviour between the species present. In fact, I had been using those characteristics almost as much as physical appearance as a means of identification, at least to be able to spot species that were different. I returned home with a sense of both achievement and excitement, longing again to sitting at this interface of land and water, of knowledge and discovery.


Tuesday, 19 June 2018

By the riverside

River Guadiana (Martin Kelsey)

Spring ended with a thump. Suddenly we are where we should be in middle of June: summer, with cloudless skies and crispy dry blonded vegetation. Yet, just over a week ago this extraordinary stretched-out spring gifted us moderate temperatures, clouds and meadows still looking like an artist's palette, chaotic in colour. A whole cycle has spun slower this year. Plants have flowered later (our olives are still in blossom), fruits are several weeks later than normal. But the cool and damp spring held butterflies at bay.

I spent most of the day walking along the banks of the Guadiana River, the second great watercourse through Extremadura. It moves sluggishly east to west across the northern half of the Badajoz province. Helped by temperatures close to 40ºC, it had a truly tropical feel about it. It reminded me rather of the Nile in southern Sudan. There is a gallery woodland of poplars, ash and willows, with stretches of exotic eucalyptus as well. Giant reeds stand bamboo-like and, to exemplify the tropical touch further, patches of the invasive water hyacinth give a lurid glossy green carpet to stretches along the river.

The dragonflies were fewer than I had hoped for, testament again I believe to the slow spring. But the most common species was the Violet Dropwing, obelisking in the heat from favourite perches overhanging the water. Unlike the exotics such as the water hyacinth and eucalyptus, this species whilst hailing from Africa, has arrived onto the Iberian peninsula under its own efforts. First recorded in Spain in 1979, it is now widespread in Extremadura. 18% of the Odonata fauna here is of tropical African origin, indicators it would seem of climate change.
Violet Dropwing (Martin Kelsey)

As I explored the bankside vegetation, despite the high temperatures and it being already midday, I was surprised by the amount of bird song. Species present in these wetter habitats tend to continue singing longer into the season and later in the day. Had I been walking in evergreen oak dehesa at that moment, I would have heard very little sign of birdlife. But here beside the river, there was the conversational chat of Reed Warblers, the harsh raucous notes of Great Reed Warblers and the syrup-like flow of sound from Golden Orioles. Quickly I also found Nightingales, Cetti's Warblers and Blackcaps.

In a clump of willows, another song contributed to this audio gallery. Whilst carrying some Reed Warbler-like notes, it also rang with repeated "tchec..tchec..tchec" sounds, especially at the start of each phrase, which developed an exuberance that a Reed Warbler could never match. For a while, the bird remained hidden, but eventually rather clumsily came into partial view through the twigs and foliage. Clearly bigger that a Reed Warbler, with colder brown upperparts, what immediately drew my attention was a large, broad-based orange bill. It was a Western Olivaceous Warbler.

I spent the next quarter of an hour watching it, or rather trying to do so, since it was determined to stay hidden in the willows. At last it gave a short, heavy song-flight across my path and settled to sing on the bare dead twigs on a eucalyptus bough.

Western Olivaceous Warbler (Martin Kelsey)

It was only ten years ago that breeding was first confirmed of Western Olivaceous Warblers in Extremadura. Indeed there were only five sight records between 1995 and 2007. But since then local birders have much better understood both its habitat (typically riverine willows and scrub), its identification and phenology (the first ones arrive in late April, but most do so in May). This year so far, it has been recorded from 22 different locations, mostly along the Guadiana River, but also from three sites in north-west Extremadura. My record was at a previously unknown site, but I have also seen it this year at known localities. Suitable habitat is present along much of the course of the Guadiana and I would be surprised if the true population was not much larger than currently known. What we do not know is whether this significant change in status is merely an artefact, based on better knowledge and more effort being made to locate the species, or whether it, like the Violet Dropwing, is also an indicator of climate change.

Monday, 28 May 2018

A final fling

Displaying Great Bustard (John Hawkins)

There was a communion. We watched the Great Bustard in full display and the fresh westerly breeze trembled his splay of white feathers. Touched by the wind, the tall flowering grasses of early May swirled. The same wind caressed our faces. Elements shared, and I felt strangely connected to this rather preposterously strutting bird. The lone male Great Bustard was thigh-deep in rocket, bugloss and galactities thistles: yellow, purple and pink.   His neck was swelling in testosterone driven frenzy, tumescent and almost reaching the ground. It was medicine-ball in both shape and colour: a rich russet with a creamy buff V creating a divide in the centre. Narrower black strips appeared at the side, where the feathers had parted. Nuptial whiskers were standing erect, looking like ear tufts. With his tail pushed flat across his back and his wings seemingly twisted as if double-jointed, he had become from the rear a pyramidal white fluster. His display was punctuated by stochastic jerking movements as he gradually rotated. Thus his extraordinary absurdity could be viewed from all angles.

He seemed alone. At one moment a male Little Bustard appeared in the same field of view, just a few feet away from his monstrous cousin. He puffed up his chest and gave his head a little jerk, emitting his raspberry-blowing note. Such was his display, touchingly modest in comparison.

Then we noticed a female Great Bustard, quietly roaming in the vicinity. She was making cursory pecks at the spring flowers and was at best nonchalant in regard to the puffed-up male. He seemed to sense this and his wings closed like book covers, and he resumed his normal shape. He made a few long strides away, as if to retain some modium of dignity. 

But something had triggered the female and she started to approach the male, who stopped his strop and again his neck swelled and whiskers rose. His wings unfurled like a white fan. He became, indeed, like a lotus flower, feathers turning into petals, opening in an offering. His crescendo of movements started again, a slow, jerking circle, his rueda display "the wheel". The female was no longer pecking at plants distractedly. Instead she seemed to be sprucing herself up, making little preening movments to her breast. We continued watching and I was convinced that they were about to mate, but something changed her mind and off she went in one direction, whilst the male, reading her to perfection, strode off in the opposite one.

Singing Calandra Lark (John Hawkins)

We had watched this episode unfolding for over an hour and throughout the whole time, a Calandra Lark had been singing almost non-stop. It too was a dedicated effort to anounce presence, but unlike the unique efforts of the Great Bustard, the Calandra drew on the sounds of a repertoires of imitations of other species in order to impress. We heard a medley of Linnets, Swallows and Goldfinch, Meadow Pipits and White Wagtails, Green Sandpipers and even a Gull-billed Tern. It had drawn on its remarkable soundscape, from across the four seasons: all wrapped into a continuous rhapsody..

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Tracking the rare

Common Tern - a scarce species in Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

Birding is thriving in Extremadura. This is driven partially by the numbers of people visiting through "turismo ornítologico" - the rather formal-sounding Spanish description for people coming to Extremadura for birding holidays  - but mainly by the growth of birding amongst those who live here, especially young people. There is an email forum with several hundred participants. All this translates to a huge increase in the number of person hours that are being spent in the field, both in terms of participating in survey work and censuses (such as the annual Common Crane census), engagement with eBird (now holding over 13,000 submitted checklists) or simply birding.

Couple this with digital photography, better optics and access to first class information, the quality of the observations and increasing skills of the observers, are, I am sure, also improving. And through this, so more and more scarce or rare species are being reported.

A group of us felt that it was time that Extremadura followed the example of some other regions of Spain and established a local Rarities Committee, to work with the local recorders as well as the national body, to ajudicate on records submitted. Thus would be established an independent and objective verification of sightings of unusual birds. This would ensure that the key information concerning records would be standardised and stored,along the decision from the ajudicators. Records of birds that are considered as national rarities would still require acceptance from the national rarities committee, but perhaps what is most interesting would be the monitoring through the local committee of the changes through time of the status of scarce species in Extremadura.

The first report is now available and you can see it through this link. It has been achieved through some quite considerable hard work, aiming to review not just records from the last couple of years, but following up records dating back almost twenty years. There is still a backlog of old records to be reviewed and incorporated, and I urge anyone with records of any of the species listed by the Committee to submit them (which can be easily done on-line). Over time the annual report will be more and more focused on the most recent.

The number of records received of certain species  such as Audouin's Gull, Mediterranean Gull and Ring Ouzel are such that they can no longer be considered as rarities in Extremadura. The latter is clearly a regular passage migrant, with stopovers especially in Badajoz province, with small numbers probably overwintering there regularly. With the advent of eBird recording, the ongoing situation of these species can be monitored.
Cream-coloured Courser May 2017 (Carlos González Villalba)
Some species in the report are particularly intriguing. Last year, Cream-coloured Coursers were recorded from three different locations in Extremadura during May. Two of these locations involved pairs of the species. Last year also saw breeding of the species in mainland Spain, for only the third time. Did the species breed in Extremadura as well last year? No one knows. Are we seeing the start of the spread of this North African species into the Iberian Peninsula?

The acronym for the Extremadura Rarities Committee is CREX (Comité de Rarezas de Extremadura). which is also the genus of Corncrake. The report includes records of this species too. The evidence from injured or dead birds found suggests that Corncrakes (whose Spanish name means the Quail's guide) pass through Extremadura at the same time and in the same habitats as migrating Quail....but a healthy, live Corncrake has never been seen by a birder here. Now there is a challenge!

The next report will be published sometime in the first quarter of 2019...and without spoiling the ending, I can tell you that there will be some more fascinating discoveries. Take a look at the website for updates of unusual birds being reported in Extremadura - and if you find something yourself, do send in the record!




Sunday, 8 April 2018

The reassurance of spring

Bee-eater (John Hawkins)

Conclusions of recent research on wildlife populations across Europe make for seriously depressing reading, especially for those of us with memories of what things were. Even in Extremadura, where the populations of larks and Corn Buntings appear still robust, my own notebooks carry testimony of the collapse of species such as Little Bustard and Montagu's Harrier. Rachel Carson's arresting image "Silent Spring" has been retrieved by journalists. And so I face this spring with anxiety, foreboding.

The rains only started at the end of February and to date we have already received  since then 86% of last year's entire total of rainfall total recorded in the immediate vicinity of our home. Whilst the landscape now looks luxuriously green, it was striking how the wetter and colder weather delayed flowering of many early species this year and how few butterflies were on the wing in the first half of spring. The result has been bittersweet: water resources have recovered, the middle spring plant growth looks set to be magnificent, but early breeding birds, especially raptors, have taken a big hit. Nest failure among the Griffon Vultures has been massive.

Barbary Nut Iris (Martin Kelsey)

And yet for most of the migrant birds, the phenology of spring unfolds predictably. As I write I can hear a Nightingale singing in the garden. It arrived yesterday, pretty much on cue. This first week of April has seen the flood of Bee-eaters, creating a buzz of excitement in text messages and social media as, with extraordinary synchrony, people hear their heralding calls and catch glimpses of their bounding flight across the region and beyond. Notwithstanding our anxieties, the resilient return of migrant birds generates a sense of reassurance and relief. Whilst there are survivors, there is hope.

Black-eared Wheatear (Martin Kelsey)

I stood at one of my favourite places on the plains, jagged dog's teeth of rock erupting from the thin soil, which now has a green mantle becoming increasingly polka-dotted by colour, A newly arrived Black-eared Wheatear perched on one of these rocks, its quiet song interrupted only with periodic drops to the ground to snatch and pound a caterpillar. Its buff-sandy body spoke of deserts. Just a couple of metres away, a Northern Wheatear en route between the Sahel and the mountains of Central Europe had also paused. Looking in the other direction, I could see a male Little Bustard jerking its head backwards as it give its courtship call, while a small party of Great Bustard crossed the same field of view. Above them, a Roller sat on a wire and unseen Bee-eaters prrrted overhead. A pair of Stone Curlew stood hunched and morose, ignoring the zigzagging chases of rival Calandra Larks. All of this happening at the same time, in the same place, unscripted juztapositions. This too created a heady combination of emotions in me, as the observer: a sense of sheer good fortune, touched by the vitality of spring but underlaid with poignancy and nostalgia.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Recovery

Black Vulture drying its plumage (Martin Kelsey)

It has been an extraordinary transformation. Just over two weeks ago the horrendous drought broke and we have barely had a day since when it has not rained. Indeed, in this month alone (and we are only half way through it) we have received over 65% of the rain that fell in the whole of last year. Rivers that had ceased flowing last spring have come back to life, with water thundering down their watercourses.
Almonte River in November 2017 (Martin Kelsey)
Almonte River in March 2018 (Martin Kelsey)


Pools have appeared on the plains and following rain, whole slopes glisten with the run-off, tracing the routes taken by livestock. Land that had been grey and weather-beaten, bereft of hardly any growth apart from resilient sand crocuses, are once again green and spangled by daisies, marigolds and crucifers. Grim visages have been shed and even the most dour of those who live from the land exalt the promise of a spectacular spring.

Rain-filled pool on the plains of Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

During this period, the rain has been accompanied by Atlantic winds, sweeping across the meseta of south-western Spain. Banks of heavy clouds unroll above us, dramatic and daunting. Birding is challenging in such windswept and wet conditions, but during lulls the birds respond. Respites offer opportunities for feeding, song and mating, or simply drying their plumage, giving those of us who have braved the conditions the reward of witnessing these peaks of activity. Two days ago, during a brief moment of calmer weather beside the Alcollarín Reservoir, a Common Cuckoo called from the oak dehesa, a newly arrived Woodchat Shrike sat on a clump of brambles and an Iberian Chiffchaff sang its hesitant, jumpy song, culminating in joyful "sweeet" notes. It interspersed its song with anxious foraging, hovering and flitting through the foliage, sometimes sharing the same small tree with its Common Chiffchaff cousin.

Alcollarín was the site on 6th March where I stood watching the hordes of Barn Swallows fluttering hard low over the water against the head wind and noticed an interesting-looking gull swimming, making short flights and returning to the water again. It was a first-winter Kittiwake, the first I had ever seen in Extremadura and far from its usual winter habitat: the high seas. I had heard that the storms had brought Kittiwakes into inshore waters in southern Spain and I confess that when I set out that morning, I half-wondered whether something like a Kittiwake might have been blown-in to my local reservoir, but there had been no records of any inland.
First-winter Kittiwake at Alcollarín (Martin Kelsey)

Two days later, standing on the massive dam  of the Sierra Brava reservoir, buffeted by the wind, with the mass of choppy water in front of me, it felt just like being on a sea-front. And as we stood, gliding past on stiff wings, we saw another Kittiwake, this time an adult. The Alcollarín youngster has not been relocated, but the adult at Sierra Brava was still present at least until yesterday, entertaining birders with its zooming flypasts at the dam, as if it was homing into a coastal cliff. These two birds remain the only ones reported from the interior of Spain, yet it is inconceivable that there are not others at reservoirs elsewhere.

Adult Kittiwake Sierra Brava Reservoir (Thomas Reickmann)

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Circles

Vortex behaviour by Shoveler (Martin Kelsey)

With an unaided eye, they appear like dense, floating mats. There are four of them visible on this small water body, along with a selection of busy evenly-scattered ducks: up-ending Mallards, pootling Shovelers, diving Pochards and Teal nibbling at the water's edge. But there is something about the motion of these mats that intrigue: they are alive. With binoculars the species responsible is instantly recognisable. With brilliant white bows, toffee-brown flanks and bottle-green heads, the drakes are Shovelers, and they seem to outnumber the females. And I become spellbound at what they are up to. 

These boldy patterned concentrations of Shoveler are circular in form and are spinning anti-clockwise. These duck mats vary in size, but the one I am watching has over 40 birds. Shoveler swim in to join the cluster, becoming tightly embedded into its form. Almost all of the birds have their bills, or even whole heads, submerged, whilst those in the middle are upending. It is almost as if the sheer pressure towards the centre forces those positioned there to be pushed vertically, so tight is the concentration of bodies. The mass continually circles in the same direction, a metaorganism, a vortex.

This pack of spinning Shoveler is creating a swirl of currents under the water, enough indeed to stir up the sediment on the bottom of the pool, bringing it up in a spiralling column to within the reach of the feeding duck. There their spatulate bills, edged with filtration combs, are ideally formed to collect the range of tiny food items they seek: seeds, insects, crustaceans. Biologists have described this as "Collective Vortex Behaviour", indeed there is even a paper about it in The Quarterly Review of Biology, published in 2016 by Johann Delcourt et al. They describe a model of how these spinning arrays of Shoveler form. Shovelers when feeding alone usually move either by simply ploughing forward in a straight line, or going round in little circles. This circular motion is an attempt to stir up sediment. If another joins it they circle close together in the same direction in order to avoid colliding with one another. Then there may be one or two more joining them. The result is a vortex which becomes so effective that it brings to the surface more food than they can eat. This then becomes an attraction for other Shoveler nearby and very quickly the group becomes much bigger.

I watch a place where three vortices were quite close to each other, and there is a steady movement between them of individual birds moving from the periphery of one to the other: sneaky opportunists perhaps.

I have watched this pool over several winters, but never before have I seen so many Shoveler on it and never so many showing this spinning behaviour. But the difference this year is that the water level has reduced hugely because of the severe drought. Perhaps this year the water is shallow enough across the whole pool for the vortex to work effectively, whereas in previous years the Shoveler seemed to spend most of their time snoozing on the surface: dormant and gently rocked by the ripples.
Spiralling Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)

Above me, as I watch the vortices, birds are spiralling. A multitude of Common Cranes on northward migation rising on a thermal. This is a wholly disorganised circle, noisy and atomised. It rises anti-clockwise too but takes no clear form - each individual bird using the rising air to gain height. At its climax it undergoes an amazing transformation. Somehow they organise themselves into a strewn-out skein and proceed on their north-east trajectory. Having used thermal forces for ascent, they are now pulled by gravity, aided by the slipstream from the shape of the skein. There is beauty as they move, wings held in a glide with the occasional sine wave of gentle flaps. The sky is braided by this long string of birds. 

Braids of Common Cranes (Martin Kelsey)



Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tented colonies

The homes of the Winter Webworm Ocnogyna beatica (Martin Kelsey)

I am standing beside pasture in late winter, facing the low sun, and watching the light refracting from silvery patches that freckle the field. They glow like medallions on the green baize of the meadow. I approach one and bend down to take a closer look. The structure is a canopy, closely woven, holding tiny globules of dew which collectively provide the silver sheen on the web. But I am more curious of its inhabitants, for below this tent squirm several hundred tiny caterpillars. They are the Winter Webworm, the larva of a tiger moth Ocnogyna beatica, a species of the western Mediterranean basin.

The Winter Webworm Ocnogyna beatica colony (Martin Kelsey)

Hatching in the middle of winter, they spend the first few weeks of their lives in these tented colonies. Their diet is catholic, consuming the winter greens of fresh foliage of clovers, mallows, vetches and mustards, and probably pretty much anything else growing around them. It strikes me that these veiled tents under which they are domiciled not only protect them from hoar frosts, but must also act like cloches for the food plants around the larvae. In a dry winter like this one, dew formation is a crucial source of moisture and perhaps the structures that the caterpillars have made create a favourable micro climate for the plants they feed on.

Winter Webworm larva on a sand crocus in early March (Martin Kelsey)

Once they are two or three centimetres long, come late February, the caterpillers evacuate their tents and roam widely. In places they become super-abundant, masses crossing tracks and roads, all heading in one direction, synchronised around a mysterious cue. By late spring they enter their pupa stage, a chrysalis that lies deep in the ground (10 to 20 centimetres) far from the severe dessicating drought of summer. This is the longest stage of  their annual cycle.

With the autumnal rains the adults emerge, the male with attractive variegated black and white wings and the wingless female, looking like a miniscule yak - plump with shaggy auburn hair. She will lay clusters of eggs and her progeny just three months further on will dapple the pastures with their minature greenhouses.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Returning north

Migrating Greylag Geese at dawn on 20th January (Martin Kelsey)

I have seen a couple of Barn Swallows already this month, and they are most likely to be early returning migrants rather than overwintering birds, but it is still mid-January and, as the proverb says one (or even two) swallows do not make a summer. However, one clue that happened yesterday as I was hanging out the washing was an incontrovertible signal that the wheels of seasonal change are starting to roll - and it summoned a tinge of sadness within me.

The sun had yet to break the horizon of the hills to our east, but the House Sparrows were stirring with their chirruping waking conversations. Above this sound came another. It too was conversational but more strident and urgent. It was the honking of geese. Then from the south, and crossing my field of vision, was the skein. This was no short-distance foraging foray. These birds were flying high and with a purpose. They were returning north, Sightings of geese over our garden are exclusively birds on migration: in October and November heading south and then late January and February heading north. There are wintering populations just 25 km away as the goose flies, but nowhere closer to home are there any favoured feeding areas.

These geese were Greylags. This is a species which arouses little interest for visiting birders from Britain, for whom this species is associated with large,boisterous feral flocks. But these Greylags are truly wild birds, starting a journey back to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. For me, our wintering Greylag Geese provoke a sense of wonder and respect, as do the Cranes, in their highly visual and audible migration. When I see them like this, I can only marvel at the drive, part innate and part learnt, that triggers the timing and direction of their journey.

In the centre of Extremadura, the Greylags feed mainly on rice stubble fields, alongside the cranes. But they select just a few particular zones, perhaps because there they are close to water bodies where they will roost. One of my favourite winter pastimes is spending the last hour of daylight at a spot where I can look across one of these sites. The low sun behind me provides wonderful viewing conditions across an expanse of rice stubble. Marsh and Hen Harriers will be out, causing flurries of Spanish Sparrows and Corn Buntings to erupt from amongst the dead stems. Common Cranes in family groups daintly pick at the debris on the ground. But it is the geese I focus on, aware that with each minute that passes, I have less and less day light to work with. It is about patience, lots of it. I am searching the flock for any unusual geese that may have migrated south along with the Greylags. As anyone who has watched feeding geese will know, most of the flock will have their heads down feeding, others will be asleep, leaving just a few with their heads held high in vigilence.  The problem is that when searching for unusual species, it is the bill, head and neck that carry the easiest to spot differences. In the tall rice stubble, the situation is even more complicated. Sometimes just the top of the back of a goose will be visible, and sometimes it will disappear completely as it moves into a runnel. And as good as my vantage point is, some of the flock will simply be too far away to see well.
Wintering Greylag Geese in rice stubble (Martin Kelsey)

On almost every visit, therefore, I content myself in knowing that  I have at least tried and that, despite the frustrations, it was a truly wonderful way to spend a late winter's afternoon. Twice though this winter, the effort did pay off. Once with finding two White-fronted Geese and then a month later, discovering a much rarer Pink-footed Goose in the same place.
White-fronted Goose (closest bird) with Greylag Geese in rice stubble (Martin Kelsey)

Seeing the migrating geese yesterday, prompted me to return to this viewpoint in the afternoon. I had passed by there just two days earlier and several hundred geese were present, but I could not pause for long there because  I was busy counting cranes, and besides the light was too bright to scan the geese carefully. Back there yesterday, the message conveyed by the migrating geese was all too clearly confirmed. Just three Greylag Geese remained. And so my afternoon goose watching season had ended for another year.