Sunday, 30 December 2018

The evening of the day

A winter's evening at Arrocampo Reservoir (Martin Kelsey)

At a quarter to six the action starts, flagged by the arrival of a band of forty Cattle Egrets, pushed by a sense of purpose and giving their craggy calls as they pass. A guttural wrenching call incongrously emergences from the elegance of a Little Egret. Why is it that a family of birds so suave that demand for their nuptual plumes decimated their populations over a hundred years ago, are the authors of such coarse squawks? My musing is quickly overtaken by the next ribbon of dusk activity as I count over two hundred Jackdaws, lining-up and all facing the same direction along high-tension cables. These are suspended from pylons that cut a tangent along the eastern fringe of the Arrocampo Reservoir. Unlike other reservoirs, the water level of Arrocampo barely fluctuates during the year. It acts as the source of coolant water for the Almaráz nuclear power plant, the white domes of which I can see across to my left. The combination of shallow water, absence of changing levels, a fertile catchment and sightly warmer than average water temperature has resulted in a wide margin of emergent vegetation, dominated by reed mace. 

These Typha beds support a rich avifauna (as well as being superb for dragonflies). All of Europe's species of herons, egrets and bitterns have bred here and there are populations also of Purple Swamphen, warblers such as Savi's and Great Reed, and Penduline Tit. Crakes sneak through on passage. But in winter the Typha beds are where an extraordinary mixture of birds bed themselves down for the night. Before their descent, some of the birds are making pre-roost gatherings, such as the Jackdaws on the cables. As I watch them, a group of Lapwings cross my field of view, a staccato of black and white.  Also heading for roost, their choice venue will be a shallow pool nearby.

Pre-roost of Spotless Starlings (Martin Kelsey)
On two pylons hundreds of Spotless Starlings bead the cables and festoon the structures, waiting for the moment to make their descent to the roost. The sun is sinking, the western sky slowly blushes like a bed of embers, as the foreground becomes increasingly monochrome and detail fades. Sound become as important as sight. Reedbeds always host strange utterances from creatures hidden from view. There is a satisfied rounded squeal from a Water Rail. A Purple Swamphen gives an explosive trumpet blast. A Bluethroat tut-tuts. Movement continues as Great White Egrets arc inwards, swirling on stiff half-opened wings to descend into an area of vegetation just to my right. Packs of Jackdaws noisily "jakking" clear from the cables and twist into the same area of reeds. Cattle Egrets are streaming in as well. The combination of black and white: Jackdaws and egrets, seems perfectly matched and assorted, echoing strangely the image of the earlier flock of Lapwings.

Many species of birds roost communally, especially in the winter. The functions of coming together at night include the hypothesis of the information centre, where information may be transferred about the best foraging areas. If birds huddle together close enough this may help to reduce heat loss. Being together will also enhance viligence against predators and, in the event of an attack, increased likelihood for the predator to be confused and distracted by the multitude. As if to prove the point, there is a sudden frenzied eruption as the egrets and Jackdaws take off. A hunting Marsh Harrier in the twilight makes a couple of wavering banking manoeuvres in the midst of the commotion before straightening its trajectory and drifting off and away, doubtless to its own harrier communal roost.

As the cocktail of birds calm down and disappear once more in the vegetation, they start to produce a rather enchanting cacaphony of sound: growls from the egrets and the sharper calls from the corvids. Mixed together it takes on a gentle bubbling character, rather like a thick soup simmering. I imagine the gathering of now several hundred birds fidgeting as they settle down, a mysterious myriad of interactions between neighbours. 

As I leave, with the night closing in, another sound emerges. It is the gruff "waaaa" of Black-crowned Night Herons. A string of these chunky birds fly high across the marsh from right to left. Unlike all of the activity so far, they departing from their roost and heading off to forage. The changing of the guard perhaps, or the ebb and flow of the tide. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Farewell to the Tree of Love

Our Judas Tree in flower (Claudia Kelsey)

Standing on the eastern side of our drive, with the house as a backdrop, the Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum bestowed a breathtaking performance each spring. From its bare and twisted twigs buds erupted into candyfloss-pink pea-like flowers. The blossoming tree drew admiration and from afar became a beacon, networking as it were, with other Judas Trees that had been planted beside the old houses, that like ours, had been small wineries (Lagares) on the hill which became thus named, the Sierra de los Lagares.

For the ten-days or so of the flowering period, this visual spectacle was also audible. Standing close to tree, with my eyes shut, I would be wholly enveloped by the warmth of the sound of thousands of honey bees and carpenter bees, feeding well into the spring evening on the nectar it gifted them. It was like an embrace of sheer life and vitality. As the flowers dropped and carpeted the ground below the tree, forming rosy drifts of petals, the leaf buds started to open, a succession of effort by this tree. Large, heart-shaped leaves now gave us a pool of shade - thus this tree continued to give.

Judas Tree blossom (Martin Kelsey)

Scops Owls were fond of calling from this tree and it was favoured by Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers which would quietly tap into a broken bough, often whilst I stood still close by. Great Spotted  and Iberian Green Woodpeckers would sometimes fly from the tree as I passed. Two springs ago, I watched a Wryneck singing from the topmost branches.

The tree is native to the eastern Mediterrean and its English name is claimed to be derived from the legend that it was the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Before its rendezvous with betrayal, the legend claims that its flowers were white, only becoming the colour of flesh after his suicide. This link is reinforced by the fact, here in Extremadura at least, this dramatic episode of flowering, when a bare tree transforms in the matter of a few days, often coincides with Easter. Curiously the tree sheds its leaves at Christmas time.

More prosaically, the English name may simply have come from its French name L'Arbre de Judée, meaning Judea Tree, after the region of the Middle-East where it originates. But here our neighbours call this species Árbol del Amor, the Tree of Love because of the heart-shaped leaves. And that is how we felt about this wonderful individual which stood at the entrance of our home, perhaps for more than a century.

A few days ago we returned home after a couple of nights away at a meeting. Pulling into the drive something struck me as changed, but only when getting out of the car did I realise that our beloved Tree of Love was lying on its side, wrenched and uprooted by the wind. The following day a neighbour, Miguel helped me remove the branches, and in doing so we discovered signs of massive heart wood rot deep in its trunk. This tree,  which had been such a singular feature of our lives here, had been slowly ailing.

Our Judas Tree toppled by high winds (Martin Kelsey)