Thursday, 26 February 2015

Give It Some Wellie

As soon as I crested the railway bridge lying only 100 metres from the busy junction I saw the golden brown form of a short-eared owl drifting low over the marshland to my right. Further along this arrow straight road a party of 30 or so Bewicks swans grazed contentedly on the lush green sward. These birds were still in their family groups, the young birds sporting duller grey-brown neck and wing feathering. Such wildness within earshot of a murderously busy trunk road and within sight of a large, heavily populated town.

Bewick's Swans

It was quite some time ago that I first discovered the unique delights of these East Norfolk marshlands. On that occasion my friend John and I cycled the 22 miles from our homes in Norwich to Gt Yarmouth, battling a strong headwind all the way. The chill easterly airflow was especially punishing along the loneliness of the Acle Straight, that notorious 6 mile stretch of unbending and unforgiving tarmac that dissects the flat marshlands lying just inland from the coast. Where once a large salt water estuary played host to Roman merchant shipping it is today a large almost unpopulated area of wet gazing meadows, intersected liberally with drainage ditches fringed with reed. Wind pumps, some restored and complete with their wooden sails, dot the landscape most of which lies at or just below sea level; a reminder that this was once seriously wet landscape tamed and drained by the ingenuity of man. On the day in question, 14th May 1972 as a matter of fact, we made the naive decision to try and ride our bikes back home along the wall of Breydon water and then the banks of the River Yare, little did we know of the difficulties such an ill informed choice would cause us. It took us many frustrating hours to push, carry and otherwise manhandle our cycles over dykes, styles, fences and thick grass before we reached the relative civilisation of Reedham. Exhausted as we were upon gaining firm ground we still had 15 miles of hard cycling to go before reaching the sanctity of home, a goal we eventually achieved as dusk was falling. I do remember being so exhausted that I had to stop and rest for several minutes whilst just a few hundred yards from our house. I'm pretty certain I slept well that night. But the seeds were sown, the die cast, because despite the hardships of our journey we had none the less seen and heard many things to delight; the flock of summer plumaged grey plover resplendent in their monochrome livery, exploring the dilapidated and abandoned farm house where we noticed wren, blackbird, songthrush, carrion crow and shelduck nesting, lapwings displaying with exuberant abandon over the damp green meadows, the belligerent mute swan whose nest blocked our path and the wide open spaces that reached to the horizon on all sides. Nowhere else like it in the whole of Gt Britain yet ours for the day for we saw not a soul.

Over the following years I came to know the area well and it seldom failed to provide evocative memories and special encounters with nature. Through the seasons its wealth of wildlife has given much pleasure, but my visits have lapsed of late and it has been a while since I have strode over its skylark infused lushness and soaked up its sense of space and wildness. High time to make amends then.

So, having dispensed with the cycle and driven to our chosen venue, I found myself for the next 3 hours or so in the company of two valued friends walking the now designated long distance footpaths (Wherryman's Way and Weaver's Way) between Reedham and Halvergate. We do this kind of thing every couple of months as a way of keeping our friendship alive, catching up on gossip and (usually) sampling as much food and drink as we can respectably cram in to what is essentially a wildlife focussed walk.

Angela and Gemma - Complete with Sensible Footwear
It was a beautiful, calm late winter day as we left our start point in Reedham village with just a hint of spring in the still air. The river bank here is now lined with a 50 metre belt of reed and shallow pools. Prime habitat as it turned out for bearded tit, reed bunting, marsh harrier and duck of various species, all of which we saw within a few minutes of leaving human habitation. One of the marsh harriers that we flushed from the far bank had a prey item clutched in its talons. This bird flew away from us into the territory of another that gave chase, tangling with the first bird causing it to drop the vole it had laboured hard to catch. This is I guess a positive indication of just what a high population level these raptors now have in this area; no one bird can move far without invading the airspace of another.

Barn owls do very well in this part of the world and as we approached one of the very few habitations bordering the river one of these ghostly white birds silently flew out from the cover of an outbuilding. We were debating why the bird took flight, given we were not that close and could probably not be seen from the depths of the roosting site, when we espied a dog fox bounding away across the unkempt grounds. Mystery solved. The fox caused a second barn owl to dislodge from its chosen daytime perch; obviously a breeding pair is in residence here. Barn owls nesting in your back garden, wouldn't that be fine. The reason these owls do so well in these areas of large tussock filled meadows is no doubt due to an abundance of their primary requirements: food, shelter and undisturbed breeding sites. The abandoned wind pumps, homesteads and cattle sheds make for ideal nesting and roosting sites and there are obviously plenty of voles and mice available in what is a very wildlife friendly habitat.

On gaining the mill at Berney Arms we left the riverside path to traverse the Weaver's Way which was rather wetter than I anticipated. I regretted my poor choice of footwear instantaneously, note to self: take your wellies next time. But once your feet are well and truly sodden, splashing in another puddle has no further effect and so we carried on a troshin as they say in this part of the world.

The Berney Marshes, now owned and managed by the RSPB, was festooned with birds. Of especial interest were the very large numbers of waders using the area, literally thousands of golden plover and lapwing, large flocks of starlings, gulls of several species and a flock of well over 100 curlew. And every so often a grey heron would flap lazily away from a dyke side on huge rounded wings. We had a good look for more short-eared owls and the rough-legged buzzard that has been present over the winter months, but failed to connect on this occasion. However we did see a couple of brown hares lying motionless in thick grass with only their large ears showing, and noticed a Chinese water deer loping away across a field.

Curlews at Berney Marshes
We walked nearly seven miles in total and saw a total of two other human beings, they being RSPB staff on the Berney Marshes. My saturated feet protested at every step of the final three miles, but it was great to be out in the fresh air and a thoroughly enjoyable yomp. Two of us did manage a pint and a pie at Reedham Ferry Inn where once planted in the atmospheric bar we could have stayed all afternoon. It was a struggle to raise ourselves from the comfort of our seat, but we still had 15 miles or so to drive home. Quite a contrast from my first visit, but somehow just as tiring.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Spanish Eyes

Central Extremadura is a country of gentle rolling steppe, where the short grass somehow finds sufficient nutrients from the shallow sandy soil to coat the land in pleasant green. The landscape is broken every so often by isolated hills atop which, more often than not, an ancient castle will perch, commanding the view for miles around. Much of the lowlands is given over to open woodland or Dehesas where holm oak or cork oak are well spaced giving the air of African Savannah as opposed to the familiar denser woodland of home. Some areas have been converted to rice fields, providing artificial wetland habitat where none existed before. Towards the north of the province are a range of higher hills which form the Monfragȕe National Park where invasive Eucalyptus is being removed and native flora replanted, here wide rivers flow creating high gorges beloved of birds of prey. There are higher mountain ranges that we saw from a distance, snow-capped and forbidding.

The Walled Town of Trujillo from Our Guesthouse

Sunburst over the Steppe

Cork Oak Woodland

Mountain Range from Serrejon

All of this combined results in a rich diversity where many birds, mammals, insects and other animals find home. Like the UK it has its resident species as well as winter and summer migrants which means that at all seasons there is something of interest to see. The following is a selection of images of some of the more impressive birds we encountered.  

This group of female great bustards surprised us with a fly by from our left as we were watching another group in fields in front of us. These birds form single sex flocks over the winter period, only getting together as spring advances and the mating urge kicks in.

These males spotted our party well before we spotted them and through the heat haze of mid-afternoon this was all I could capture of their stately strutting presence.

The first black vulture I ever saw was soaring high above my straining neck in the mountainous region of North Mallorca near the monastery at Lluc. On that occasion the immense size of the bird was only really apparent when it was mobbed by a peregrine, a minuscule antagonist by comparison. Fast forward nearly twenty years and this bird first picked up as a rectangular shaped spiralling speck in the far distance, gradually circled closer and closer until it passed overhead at no great height at all thus affording brilliant views. I like the way it is peering down at us owl like as it lazily soared above us.

Not a particularly good shot, but this pair of black-bellied sandgrouse were one of our major targets on our morning spent scouring the steppe and this is as close as they came to us. We did see a few more together with their relatives the pin-tailed sandgrouse, but they were very distant and seemed to favour foraging on the far side of any ridge we happened to be scanning. We were very lucky to see them on our first morning and didn't get a sniff for the rest of the holiday.

Golden eagle! Cried our leader and a dozen pairs of eyes swivelled skywards to where this massive top predator sailed above the rock face being mobbed by two Ravens, not exactly small birds themselves. The bird circled majestically and sedately along the ridge accompanied by its unwanted acolytes until the corvids became too much of an irritant, then the king of the mountain decided to turn the tables and stooped at one of the cronking black pests. Normal order was resumed.

Griffon vultures abound in Monfragȕe National Park and we watched dozens on these huge scavengers using updrafts to effortlessly glide to and fro across the river gorge. The birds were busy nest building, mating or sitting on eggs; the colony a hive of activity on this sunny February day. Our second visit to Castillo Monfragȕe allowed us to watch these birds passing at eye level - simply stunning.

The iconic bird of Iberia, the Spanish Imperial Eagle, has a good population in Extremadura but a sighting is not guaranteed. We were very fortunate and as soon as we arrived at a known nesting area found one surveying its territory from the lofty vantage point of a dead tree positioned high up on the hillside. During the following couple of hours we saw a pair of these wonderfully patterned raptors performing skydiving courtship dances, collecting nesting material and beating up the ubiquitous griffons. Breathtaking.  

Blue rock thrushes are handsome birds but can be frustratingly hard to see well. Quite often they afford only a frustrating glimpse as one flips over the edge of a rock or dives out of sight from its perch on a Mediterranean rooftop. So, to see one so close and for so long was a real treat.

Not an impressive photograph I know, but then it was nearly dark, and the bird was a long way off at the very top of the hillside opposite where we had waited patiently for its appearance. What a fantastic bird though and since this is the only picture I'm ever likely to get of a real, wild, eagle owl I have to include it here.

We had climbed the steep pathway and steps to Castillo Monfragȕe to watch griffon vultures pass close to, but were also hopeful of catching sight of a rock bunting. None appeared, at least not whilst a large group of nature lovers milled around. I hung back from the main group and as soon as most of the party had vacated what was in times past the castle's courtyard, this little beauty appeared. A life bird for me, one of fourteen for this holiday.

I like crag martins and these birds are resident in the mild climes of mid Spain. We spied several groups milling around most areas of rocky hillside we visited. These birds were, I guess, engaged in spring courtship and like all their family provide challenging subjects for the photographer. Keep snapping and hope for the best is my philosophy, and sometimes it works. Kind of.

A target species for our day visiting the Arrocampo wetland at Saucedilla was the purple swamphen......and here it is. What a sumptuously colourful bird.

It's such a shame we don't have white storks in this country, they would add so much colour, interest and sparkle to our villages and small towns. In this part of Spain they return to their breeding territories very early and we saw birds standing sentinel on their huge nests, Bill clapping in courtship or strutting across fields wherever we went. They make excellent photographic subjects and somehow epitomise what birding in this part of the world is all about.

Crested Lark
Thekla Lark.....I think!

Crested and Thekla larks can be found all over Extremadura, from wide open step to a small patch of dusty scrub in the middle of towns. Their pleasant, short fluty songs, which seem to be quite often given in flight, is the first thing to alert you to their presence but it is sometimes quite difficult to pick them out; their cryptic colouring blending very well into their chosen habitat of short dry grassland. It's a pity our own skylarks are not now so common.

Look at this little gem. Laura, our lovely guide picked up this bird from some distance away but by the time we arrived at the spot it had gone into hiding. The more hardened birders amongst us braced ourselves for a bit of a wait, but it was pleasantly warm and sunny so not too much of a trial. It took 20 minutes or so for the bird to decide to hop back into view and in the few seconds it showed itself I snapped away and all things considered was happy with this image.

We made a special trip to the castle at Montanchez to see Alpine accentors on a cold and blustery morning. After wandering around the castle ruins we eventually came upon a trio of birds one of which posed nicely on the ancient stone walls. Smart little birds and another tick on the life list.


The rice fields and Dehesas are wintering grounds for thousands of common cranes that seek refuge from the harsh northern weather in the milder climate of central Spain. Here they congregate in large bugling flocks feasting on fallen grain and acorns. We watched some spiralling high and heading off in a northerly direction, the subtle change in season triggering the urge to begin the return journey to their breeding grounds.

The grounds of our hotel played host to a roosting group of azure-winged magpies (now called Iberian magpies). These birds, uttering their shrill screeches and cackles, gathered at dusk in the conifers but were very wary and would only show themselves for a couple of seconds at a time before diving once more into thick cover. Beautiful birds, it was long thought that they introduced to the Iberian peninsula, possibly by Portuguese seafarers, because the rest of the world population lives in Eastern Asia; there is nothing in between. However recent fossil finds in caves on Gibraltar have proved that the species is indeed endemic to this part of Europe and conversation with our Spanish hosts showed them to be very proud and protective of this fact. Either way makes no difference to the fact they are amongst the most handsome of birds and it was good to see them thriving here.

Friday, 13 February 2015


We left our hotel located a few kilometres east of Trujillo just as dawn was breaking. A 45 minute drive through frost covered pasture along mostly empty roads took us to Monfrague National Park. Here we stopped at a viewpoint, Salto Del Gitano (which we're told translates to Gypsy's Leap), overlooking a high rocky outcrop bathed in the crisp light of early morning. Griffon vultures use the cliffs here for breeding and already there were dozens of these large raptors soaring above the ridge. Most were heavily engaged in nesting activity, some sweeping in low across the gorge with sprigs of greenery in their beaks hurtling at breakneck speed towards the sheer rock face only to pull up at the last second and alight beside their chosen nest site on an inaccessible ledge. Some of these impressive raptors would pass quite close allowing us all to fully appreciate their size and aerial prowess, they really are effortless masters of the air and will fly miles seemingly without having to flap their wings at all. Although their habits are a touch unappealing I like them and close to they really are the most handsome of birds. We also saw a confiding blue rock thrush and singing cirl bunting at this site whilst one of our group managed to photograph a short-toed tree creeper that was seeking insects from the cavities in the stonework on which we all stood. Nobody else saw this little bird pecking around our feet because we were all looking up at the unforgettable spectacle of large numbers of vultures soaring to and fro, but you can't win them all. This all made for an excellent start to what would be an exceptional day.

We moved along the narrow winding roads through scrub clad hillsides and rocky scree to another site providing spectacular views of a high rock face where within a couple of minutes we first heard and then saw a Spanish Imperial eagle perched on an isolated branch of a dead tree. How lucky were we? Through the scope we had simply stunning views of this endangered bird as it surveyed its territory from on high. We would have been satisfied with this but the eagles, for there were now  a pair on show, were not done with us and over the ensuing couple of hours put on excellent displays of courtship sky dancing followed by majestic patrolling of the cliff face harassing the griffon vultures just to show them who was boss.

We spent the afternoon walking through some native pine forest finding crested tit and various other small birds before returning to this amazing raptor watch point in late afternoon with the purpose of finding an eagle owl.  It was a long vigil and most of the party were getting a little tired before light relief appeared in the form of a fishing otter. This lively mammal entertained the group for half an hour during which time it must have caught half a dozen fish from the clear river waters. And then just as dusk was falling the eerie, far carrying call of a male eagle owl began to echo off the rock face. Fourteen pairs of binoculars began scanning the boulders for a glimpse of the bird and quite fittingly our leader found it, excitedly pointing to the silhouette perched at the very top of the rock face and calling its mate with evenly spaced single hoots. Elated we drove back to the hotel, late for dinner, very tired, but pleased with a fantastic days nature watching in a simply magical place.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Steppe

We found ourselves on the steppe near Trujillo in the chill of early morning scouring the short grassland for signs of bustards. All around we were serenaded by the trills and fluty calls of corn buntings and crested larks whilst on the horizon the odd red kite struggled to gain height in the absence of any thermals. After a few minutes fruitless scanning I happened upon what could easily have been mistaken for a couple of piles of earth at the far end of a nearby field, except that one of these earth piles raised its head to reveal itself as a little bustard. Within a few seconds another bird appeared and then a third, this one a fine male which made for a great start to our day absorbing the delights of the vast emptiness of the plains of Extremadura. But this was just a taste, a tease, of what was to come on this wonderful days birding.

We moved on a mile or so and found ourselves walking along an isolated track flanked by a large expanse of gently undulating steppe. Iberian grey shrikes flitted from fence post to fence post, a thekla lark perched alongside a crested lark offering a text book comparison of their respective identification points, brightly coloured stonechats hopped from stem to stem and lapwings uttered their plaintive calls as we lazily made progress. And there ahead of us we saw them, a group of great bustards haughtily strolling through the sward. We slowly approached their domain but before we reached critical distance were side-swiped by another party, hitherto unseen, taking wing from behind a ridge and flying straight across our path - magical. But there was more. Within a few minutes we had seen both pin-tailed and black-bellied sandgrouse speeding across the plain, distant griffon vultures spiralling skywards on the warming air and then the highlight, a lone black vulture that approached so close it more than filled the viewfinder of my camera. How good can it get?

Better. A lunch stop quickly produced kingfisher, grey wagtail and several overwintering chiffchaffs. More griffon vultures and red kites passed on high and then two larger birds circled closer and these were Eagles, golden eagles, a courting pair. These lovers entranced us for several minutes before passing from view but within a few minutes more another appeared from behind a ridge very low and very big. A pair of Ravens took exception to this massive predator and gave chase, harassing the eagle, mobbing it incessantly as it progressed across the river valley. We hardly drew breath before a yet another, our fourth for the day, flew lazily along the valley giving prolonged and appreciated views to all.

We moved on to another area of steppe hoping for better views of sandgrouse. Instead we were treated to the unlooked for and unexpected sight of a pair of Spanish imperial Eagles engaged in their courtship dance. Beautiful birds. Spring was certainly in the air in central Spain today.

We ended the days birding with a brief stop at yet another area of isolated rolling steppe and within a casual scan of the scope could see great bustard, red kite, buzzard, little owl, larks, buntings, and the ever present lapwings and golden plover. Almost too much even without the azure-winged magpies and hoopoe on the approach to our hotel.

The evening meal was full of talk of today's birds and what delights tomorrow may bring (we're promised many). The hoteliers daughter played beautiful piano for us and the delightful home cooking washed down with a rather cheeky wine rounded it off a treat. I'm enjoying this holiday.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Extremadura Day 1

First impressions of this place are good ones. Very tranquil, lovely ambience and hospitable owners. Also the gardens are full of birds. Within 5 minutes of our arrival we had seen hoopoe, several azure winged magpies and a lesser spotted woodpecker - last time I saw one of those was 20 or so years ago. Add to this the black-winged kite eating a mouse or vole it had caught atop a roadside pylon, the Iberian shrike perched on wires below and a crested lark on the grass below that whilst we stopped for a comfort break en route, and you've got a pretty good list for our first few hours in Spain. And all the way we were spotting buzzards, red kites, white storks and even a few common cranes. This is hopefully just a taste of what is to come during our week in Extremadura, I'll try and update all we see on a daily basis. Now though it's time for a pre-dinner brush up and having feasted a much needed good nights sleep. Until tomorrow.....

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Arctic Wanderers

One thing we are seldom short of in this Norfolk of ours is wind, especially on the North coast in winter where the cold Arctic air is frequently swept into the county unabated across the broiling North Sea. These winds can be cruel, whipping the mud coloured coastal waters into a churning frenzy and causing destruction to all that dares to challenge its might. We had a bit of a blow on last weekend and the results of that are all too evident at Sheringham where the high water line is strewn with the carcasses of myriad starfish, flatfish, shellfish and sponges. It also seems that a number of unusual gulls have been forced to make landfall here, pushed South by the winter gales.

Some of the 'wrecked' Starfish
So, this week I've been trying to track these white-winged nomads as they seek a crust on the strand line between Cley and Weybourne. I've been quite fortunate and with the help of Tom a fellow photographer and volunteer at Cley Marshes, latched onto a 2nd winter bird cavorting amongst many other large gulls west of Sheringham lifeboat station on Wednesday afternoon. This bird did not allow close approach, but was easily noticed from quite a distance thanks to its bright off white plumage standing out starkly from its more brown mottled cousins; the herring and lesser black-backs that are more familiar inhabitants of these parts. On Friday I found a different bird simply by persevering with a walk westwards along the shingle - a 1st winter individual that is altogether more creamy brown, lacking the light grey mantle and flight feathers of Wednesday's bird. These gulls are giving local birders the run around with their restlessness. The promenade, usually deserted in mid-winter apart from the odd dog walker, has been populated throughout the week by groups of blokes in camouflage complete with bins/scopes and cameras pacing to and fro waiting for the specialties to show. Patience usually pays off though....or if you're like me simple blind luck.

2nd Winter Iceland Gull (left)
1st Winter Iceland Gull
1st winter Iceland Gull in Flight
And Again

Pleased with my find, I turned my attention to the high sandy cliffs that tower over this part of the coast where fulmars are busy prospecting narrow ledges for the purposes of nesting later in the year. These tube nosed petrels have become far less common in recent years. Where once a loose colony of up to 200 pairs dotted the cliffs between Weyborne and Overstrand, now only a few pairs attempt to raise their single chick on these fragile, fractured piles of sand. Masters of the air currents it is fascinating to watch these birds ride the updrafts as they joust for prime breeding plots. Their speed, once taken by the prevailing wind, is breath-taking and represents a real challenge for the photographer, but now and again they will stall into the breeze and then the shutter whirls away hoping to capture the essence of this enigmatic ocean wanderer. It's encouraging to know a few pairs cling on to this southern outpost of their breeding range. Let us hope their efforts bear fruit.

Fulmar at Sheringham - Lovely Deep Blue-grey wings
Fulmars Prospecting Nesting Ledges
Masters of the Air

Literally more down to earth, the aptly named turnstones are amongst my favourite birds and become extremely confiding as winter progresses. Not adverse to tucking into chips and other tidbits proffered by passing humans, their confiding nature make them an endearing subject. They really do turn stones. If you watch them on the shingle beach they employ their upturned beak with gusto as they toss aside the pebbles in search of lice, flies and any other edible morsel. The antics of half a dozen of these smartly pied waders make an audible sound as they march their way across the beach. And they always pose for photographs which in my book makes them star birds. Quite a healthy population spends the winter foraging around the seafront here, and I noticed that they follow the gulls. As soon as the black-headed gulls scream loud and launch themselves towards a source of unhealthy hand-outs, the turnstones pipe loud and whirl off in the same direction. Turnstones will always thrive with their opportunistic personalities.

Turnstone Feasting on Stranded Shellfish
Aren't They Endearing?

I tried my own hand at hand-outs and was taken aback by the boldness of the black-headed gulls, especially the younger birds that had no fear, pinching the chips from my fingers before I'd had a chance to stuff them down my own throat. I ended up having these agile creatures hovering inches from my face robbing me of my lunch. Guess it's good for the diet.