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Martin´s Blog

Martin's blog provides a wonderful way to keep in touch with nature in Extremadura throughout the year. It will give you a good idea of the wildlife highlights month-to-month.

Vulture quartet

It has taken me eleven years to finally get to spend a morning in a photographic hide to watch vultures come to carrion. It had been on my bucket list ever since this type of service started to be offered in Extremadura. So it was great anticipation that I booked in for my son and me at the La Cañada Hide just south of the Monfragüe National Park. Jesús met us at the rendez-vous spot just after seven in the morning and a few minutes later he welcomed us into the hide. From the information I had read previously I had already dispelled any notion of sitting on a stool in a cramped canvas structure, with the camera lens poking out of a slit in the fabric. This was a bricks-and-mortar construction, with plenty of space. Curtains divided the hide into two: at the back the entrance, with a table with bird notes and a cubicle with a chemical flush toilet. Beyond the curtains, a long window covered almost the entire width of the building, using spy-glass so that birds outside could not see us inside. There we could sit on comfortable armchairs, with our cold-box with drinks and snacks between us. In the distance we could see the cliffs of Monfragüe, home to Griffon Vulture colonies, infront of that lay a wide expanse of dehesa whilst closer still was retama broom scrub with a few scattered small holm oaks. Immediately in front of us, like an arena, was a patch of beaten earth with scraggly grasses and some tree stumps. It was on this stage that the props had been scattered: abbatoir-leftovers of livestock and even a few hens' eggs in case an Egyptian Vulture took a fancy.

The sun had not yet started to illuminate the set when the first act started. Within minutes of us taking our seats, a flurry of Azure-winged Magpies dropped in from the wings to start taking tiny fragments of meat. More surprising was the arrival of Crested Larks, which, barely visible against the dry earth in the half light of dawn, also approached the sections of vertebrae to peck at morsels. As they did so a Black Kite circled over and settled on top of the tree to our left. It was a pioneer but remained lonesome until we had been there for about half an hour, when at ten minutes to eight other Black Kites started to pour in, all settling in the trees, some making low passes over the bait, but none settling to feed. It was ten minutes after that when Patrick exclaimed "My God" as a Black Vulture flew to land on the top of the nearest tree to us. It was an exciting moment: neither of us had ever been that close to the Old World's largest bird of prey. Like the kites, it too remained perched, leaving the carrion for the time being to the Azure-winged Magpies. Over the next few minutes, a Griffon Vulture arrived to perch nearby, whilst an Egyptian Vulture appeared on a further tree.

We had been there an hour when the first Black Kite made a tentative landing and slowly, almost nervously approached the food. Others looked on from the trees. A Griffon Vulture, instantly dwarfing the kite also landed at the edge of the arena, but simply watched. But then the waiting was rewarded, as if by some coded signal, there was a surprise and seemingly sponanteous onslaught by a dozen Black Kites, piling onto a piece of carrion. The Azure-winged Magpies fled and were not seen again. Once the kites were positioned there, like some vanguard action, the vultures which had gardually been arriving in direct flight from Monfragüe and gathering on nearby treetops, started to descend. They assembled though at the periphery, in clusters, watching as the kites continued to push and shove around the bones. The drama unfolded and at times reached almost comic climaxes. As individuial vultures approached the food, they performed a cheorography. Black Vultures lowered their necks and hunched their broad shoulders, half-spreading their wings like a villain's cloak and then taking huge slow-motion goose-steps as a threatening pose to ward off the kites. With more urgency, the long strides were switched to hops, with this massive bird literally bouncing kangaroo-like to gain pace. This menace was directed not just at the diminutive kites, but also to the other vultures, including congeners. Antagonism between the Griffon Vultures was also manifest by a bird standing on one-leg, with spread-eagled wings, raising the other leg slowly with its foot spreading open "palm" facing outwards to its opponent...

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Kitchen window Hawfinches

They stand tall, some over two metres high, and carry now a dense white star-burst tuft of parachute filaments, crammed together within a stockade of dry needle-sharp bracts, and each holding a large, blackish seed. The Milk Thistle, which bears the gloriously cheeky scientific name of Silybum marianum, is now reaching the culmination of its annual cycle. The stand growing behind a low wall in front of our kitchen window has now almost completely hidden the rest of the garden from view and by default now is my centre of attention as I wash glasses at the sink. And I wait in anticipation as I know, thanks to eleven years now of watching these thistle treasures of late May, that these white fibrous cups hold a valued resource for one of my all-time favourite birds. I do not have to wait long before I hear the short metallic "chink" call and see movement of the stems just beyond the wall. A sizeable bird has arrived and it soon appears, benefiting from the twig of an adjacent olive tree which carries the tiny green orbs of embryonic olives, amidst a slowly drying cluster of little pale flowers. The Hawfinch bends down and with its massive bill, reaches out to gently extract from the old flower head a single seed. It resumes its normal perching posture and works the seed within its bill, its hefty mandibles ajar and its tongue pushing and pressing the morsel of food. Its bill action reminds me a bit of watching someone who has taken a mouthful of food which is still a tad too hot - trying to keep the food moving inside the mouth and inhaling cooling air at the some time.
I look forward to this time of year in the garden, as the Hawfinches reappear. It is a welcome reaquaintance with a species that I will see now probably on a daily basis whenever I am working in the garden. During the summer, these engaging birds will come to the birds' bathing pool to drink and splash, they will feed on the fruit of the cypress trees and throughout autumn and winter, visit the garden to peck at the energy-packed flesh of the olives. In late winter, as the almond tree blossom falls, a series of disjointed chinking notes will betray a singing male Hawfinch, perched atop the very same tree in front of the house, its grey nape contrasting with a warm chestnut cap. As it flies the broad white wing bar appears almost translucent, whilst the wide white band at the tip of the tail is bold and eye-catching...

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Great Bustard wheels

In Spanish it is called the rueda (the wheel), in English it is described often as a foam bath....quite different images come to mind, but in spring on the plains of Extremadura they converge to a single meaning....that extraordinary performance of a displaying male Great Bustard. Early this month, on a calm and sunny morning just twenty minutes from home, we stood mesmerised. Across a span of 180 degrees, on fields with sward shaped by sheep, there were six white objects, contrasting strongly with spring's green flush on the meadows. These shapes transformed before us: sometimes pyramidal, sometimes round, the white changing to deep orange. The form depended on the bird's aspect. As it wheeled around slowly, it paused seemingly at 90 degree turns. From the rear it was triangular and white, with the tail pushed upwards and forwards, so all that one could see at the apex of this shape were the white under-tail covert feathers. The sides were composed by the feathers of the wing, but these no longer confined to the normal contour of the body, but each set partially erect, each slightly separate from each other. This could be seem more clearly as the bird wheeled laterally, giving us its profile. The white inner secondaries and wing covert feathers created what looked like a huge rosette. But even more striking was the front half of this view. The bird's head was pushed back, so that it appeared to just about touch the tip of the tail, arched over the back. Large nuptual whiskers struck a taut vertical position, catching the morning sunshine. From the bill downwards, feathers had parted to reveal a dramatic dark slash-like streak which took us to the most astonishing part of all: its inflated neck pouch: deep orange, so massive that it looked like a wobbly medicine ball which brushed the ground on which the bird stood. An abrupt ninety degree shift and the bird presented its front view. Now the neck pouch dominated and the bird by a single half-circle turn had changed from a pure white pyramid, to a spectacular rich-cream to russet-orange, with deeper hues around the base of this globulous shape...

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