05/10/2009
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Extremadura diary: September

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It is now much cooler here, down to a more pleasant 28°C with the usual clear blue skies, and bird movement is reaching its peak. Migration was held up for a week by huge thunderstorms and temperatures barely touching the 20s. The falling rain was channelled into small pools on the farms for animal use, rendering my drinking pool useless. With so much standing water the birds could easily bathe and drink anywhere without travelling to me.

Hawfinch
Hawfinch, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

Before the rain came, I visited my drinking pool. I parked next to the well from which I top up the pool. The water level was very low, down to the last metre or so. I noticed Blue Tits standing on the top of the well, then disappearing right down the six metres to drink! Rock Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, Blackcap, Hawfinch, Azure-winged Magpies, Pied Flycatcher and Serin were all regulars at the drinking pool, giving great views until disturbed by the resident Sparrowhawk as it swooped through the valley looking for supper.

Bluethroat
Bluethroat, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

Bluethroats are more in evidence now, descending from their summer homes in the high mountains to feed along the wet ditches. They scurry out for a snack, before hiding away in the undergrowth again, or fighting with another interloper on claimed territory. Whilst photographing one recently, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, about 10 metres away: a female Marsh Harrier crashing into the reeds after prey. I didn't manage to see what it had caught, only seeing the top of its head as it was torn apart, before the harrier flew away.

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

Lots of Yellow Wagtails are now appearing, but only fleetingly, flocks being seen one day and not the next as they carry on with their migration. It is not usually until October that the winter residents will arrive. It is the same with Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs: some days have the trees dripping with them, and the next will be silent, with not a warbler to be seen. I was expecting Ospreys early in the month, but five on the same small piece of water was a real bonus. The Water Rails are becoming less cautious now too; I often spot one or two in the same patch of reeds, feeding on the wet margins before hiding away again if an alarm call goes up.

Whinchat
Whinchat, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

The steppe is now covered in Wheatears, Whinchats and Tawny Pipits, but the bustards are very difficult to find. They prefer to spend the daytime invisibly, lying down amongst the very sparse grass. When they are spotted walking around, they are usually in family groups of three: Dad, Mum, and a youngster. It appears to be the same with the sandgrouse, again usually to be seen in groups of three. In the barest of earth, Autumn Crocuses are everywhere, covering the scorched earth with their lilac and yellow flowers, bringing some much-needed colour to the grasslands. A friend has Red-necked Nightjars nesting very close to his property, and mid-month they were still perching on his TV aerial and hunting for moths around the street lights until the first faint glow of light appeared in the sky, sending them back to their daytime roosts.

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Eurasian Black Vulture
Eurasian Black Vulture, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

A day in Monfrag├╝e produced more Griffon Vultures than I have ever seen in one place at the same time. At least 200 were soaring around Pena Falcon cliff interspersed with five or six Black Vultures, a few Ravens, and a solitary Golden Eagle. Above them, a flock of 70 Black Storks headed south, and below, on the exposed mud of the shrinking river, at least 50 Red Deer grazed on the fresh grass. Ravens have been pair bonding, performing their diving and tumbling routines, and around 50 Alpine Swifts were hunting low around the big bridge until their prey moved higher and then they too disappeared from sight. A few early Blackcaps were in the riverside bushes with a Western Bonelli's Warbler, Hawfinch and Garden Warblers. But by far the most numerous were Blue Tits, seemingly uninterested in the people coming to the spring to fill their water bottles.

In the village it looks like two Blue Rock Thrush are back for the winter. They were chasing each other around the house towards the end of the month. They sit on the roof and sing their fluty song, which is a nice way to be woken up. It makes a pleasant change from the Scops Owl that sits on the bedroom window-ledge singing away in its monotonous tone during springtime. The Barn Owls are coming out earlier now that the nights are drawing in. They crash into the olive tree for roosting sparrows, though the locals always cross themselves and mutter when one flies down the street. It is a local belief that that if you see one someone in the village will die soon. There won't be many people left in the village soon if that is the case, as I see one most nights!!

Little Egret
Little Egret, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

The rice fields are already being harvested and ploughed, bringing lots of waders to add to the few White Storks that haven't migrated south for the autumn. It is always worthwhile to sit and watch the rice field stubble being ploughed in, as many Cattle and Little Egret, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls follow the plough. They dive in within millimetres of the churning blades to retrieve frogs, crayfish and grasshoppers. I stopped counting when I got to 1000 egrets in just one small field and adjoining fields already ploughed held just as many more. Snipe numbers are increasing, but they prefer the more tranquil fields that have already been ploughed, and where the water has receded. They are only flushed by human disturbance, preferring to cower down using their camouflage when a very late Montagu's Harrier sails over looking for a snack. Glossy Ibis numbers were up to a dozen, accompanied by a few Spoonbills, until flushed by the first returning Hen Harrier. The big charca has only a few remaining shallow pools, but holds Little Ringed Plover, Green and Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Redshank and the busy Little Stints, seeing off the plainer Temminck's Stints as soon as they are spotted. A very late Whiskered Tern was the surprise of the day.

Montagu's Harrier
Montagu's Harrier, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

Whilst watching a group of newly arrived Spotted Redshanks, I could hear a storm gathering over the distant hills, the first distant rumble of thunder being loud enough to have a couple of fishermen quickly packing up and scurrying to the safety of their car. I noticed a strange low black cloud preceding the weather front, almost like mosquitoes gathering at dusk. When it was closer, I could see in my binoculars the cloud was made up of literally tens of thousands of House and Sand Martins, numbers I have only ever seen before in wildlife documentaries. They wheeled and dropped over the water, zipping round like flies in a feeding frenzy, quickly recharging their batteries before hurrying off in front of the looming black clouds. Marsh Harrier numbers are also increasing, seemingly following the arrival of the waders, with many more adults to add to the juveniles fledged locally. Little Owls are easier to see now the cooler weather is here, sitting out during the day on old buildings or walls. They survey their territory then hide away as you approach, leaving just their eyes peeking out, looking like something from a Disney cartoon.

I am always amazed we do not get more visitors at this time of year: the birding is brilliant for both quality and quantity of birds present. It's great for me, as I have an area the size of Wales as my very own patch. I never see another foreign pair of binoculars or a camera until late March, leaving all the goodies on my very own private nature reserve. The only downside is lots of species must be missed as there is virtually no coverage, I can only be in one place at once, and with very few local birders the grapevine can only offer a small taster as to what is actually going on here.

Written by: Steve Fletcher