Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Avefria! favourites!

Work of late has seen me spending muchas horas sitting in various degrees of shite weather counting birds. Hey, I'm not complaining...but in the fourth hour of trying to decide which birds out of that ever-moving flock of 500 dunlin are in my count zone I can be forgiven for feeling a little crazy.

However, the joy of birding is that every so often it throws you something wonderful and makes you feel that life is really pretty special after all. I'm not greedy - no mega rarity for me - and a bird as commonplace as the sturdy old peewit can brighten my day.

So, during a coffee/fag break sat in my car on the edge of Langstone Harbour I was delighted to spend twenty minutes watching the antics of a spanking adult male winter plumage lapwing hunting for fat juicy earthworms on the grass embankment of one of the busiest roads in Hampshire. Undeterred by the far from idyllic setting, this chap diligently paused, listened then
plucked unwary worm after worm from their subterranean boltholes.

And you know what? In this mood even a Black-headed gull can seem beautiful....

Tuesday, 30 October 2007


Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones

A few pics of some stunning birds I saw today during a bird survey on the south coast of England. A beautiful sunny day in the midst of grim industrial docklands was brightened up by discovering these crackers loafing on some concrete blocks....I once saw a colour-ringed turnstone on El Hierro in the Canaries. It was in the town of La Restinga, in a group of about a dozen birds, being hand-fed peanuts by a local guy. I reported the bird when I got home to the UK and it turns out it was ringed as a chick on Ellis Island, Canada. They do get about a bit.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Batty and Ratty

A few recent images from various wildlifey tasks...I must stress that all photos of protected species were taken under license and in the presence of a suitable license holder!

An arachnophobe is perhaps not the best thing to be when your job often takes you into dark spaces in search of bats. Many is the time when I have entered a loft or other roof void only to come face to face with hordes of the 8-legged gits, or at the very least been plastered in their evil webs.

Every so often though, my highly rational (in Darwinian terms) fear is forgotten when you strike in this case when a routine roof inspection revealed the presence of a truly amazing Brown long-eared bat having sex doggy style. The tiny ball of fur/leather was going for it big style, ensuring his lady had a treat to end all treats. The photo does not pick up the tiny beads of sweat on his wrinkled brow, but rest assured he was a studdly...


If you go down to the woods today you won't see a water vole. Go to a suitable river and you might. Or, more likely, you will just find their poo. Can't miss it...looks like tiny liquorice sweeties, left in nice neat little piles on the river bank...

There aren't so many water voles around these days thanks to vegetarians. Yes, you heard me...bloody vegetarians. In one of the biggest ecological feck-ups in history, vegetarian bunny-hugging do-good know-nothing animal rights 'activists' have been responsible for the demise in one of our most charasmatic native mammalian friends. Don't like mink farms? Well, neither do I much, but releasing thousands of the non-native ferocious water vole-eating predators into the unprepared British countryside was a bit fecking stupid you twats. Mostly thanks to you good old Ratty has declined by about 95% in the last 15 years or so. Nice one.

So I think I can be justified in feeling a little pleased when I come across firm, or runny, evidence that in some places, yet untouched by the mink menace, water voles are doing rather well.


A sign that at least all our countryside's not buggered.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Titchmarsh...put him in the skip.

God help us. Yet again I note the rise of wildlife evangelism on British television. Last week saw the much-advertised launch of a new BBC series called 'The Nature of Britain'. At last I thought, maybe the good old BBC bods are using our outrageously expensive license fees to produce something worth watching. Visions of hardy BBC Natural History Unit camera people working their arses off to bring us unparalleled images of Britain's rich wildlife heritage. Joy rose in my last we might have a film entitled to call itself 'The Nature of Britain'.

No. Instead we got Alan bloody Titchmarsh and his oh-so-cosy-ee-by-gum-everyting's-better-after-a-nice-cuppa-tea-aren't-us-Brits-a-perky-lot bollocks. Given the opportunity to make a momentous and serious wildlife series to educate the British viewer, the BBC chose the presenting equivalent of a cosy armchair snooze on a Sunday whilst watching Songs of Praise. What??? The man's a bloody gardener.

It was like watching some fecking quasi-religious every opportunity we were reminded how "special" Britain is. Nowhere else on Earth has such "special" coasts, such "special" mountains, such "special" woodlands ad infinitum. Ever been to Spain? Morocco? India? Ireland? Georgia? North America? They're all bloody amazing...we're no different from any of them...we're not  "special" you tit.

Alan goes abseiling in search of British wildlife. The hand of justified indignation prepares to strike a small blow and send the tit to oblivion where he can wait until joined by every other BBC wildlife 'presenter'

And what images did we get? OK, Arctic skuas mobbing the Northern tit were good, but it wasn't long before we had baby seals gurning. I fully expect red deer rutting, puffins (aren't they funny!!), urban foxes and blue tits in the preceding weeks. Standard BBC idiot-fodder. It's enough that we have to put up with weeks of Springwatch ("Chaffinches!") and Autumnwatch and the endless live drivel about bird feeders and Dennis the badger (cow killer). There is not a single wildlife propgramme on the BBC nowadays that doesn't assume that we are all dribbling morons who collect cat calendars and wear those  fleecy jackets with wolves on them. 

If I see another cheesy, wimpy BBC wildlife presenter call something "BRILLIANT!!" again I will fall into an apolplectic rage, find them and beat them to death with a 'Fun Wildlife Pack'. I really will.

My message to the BBC - stop now, go away to your dark rooms in Bristol, have a think about what's worked in the past (Hint...Mr Attenborough...doesn't get excited, knowledgeable, authoritative, knows when to shut up, not a celebrity) and come back when you've worked it out.

We, and the Nature of the British Isles deserve better. Get a grip .

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Dinner dinner dinner dinner....

Where did my life go? 3 months ago I was happily settled in the guise of a college lecturer, taking regular tea breaks and talking rudely about students; now I'm driving all over the UK from early morning to late night trying to catalogue wildlife before it gets covered over with concrete...the culture shock couldn't be more acute.

Having said that, I am thoroughly enjoying the new job and my species ID skills are gradually being honed. Not to mention being at the sharp end of the gradual, piecemeal destruction of the British ecological system. God, how jaded am I?

Bats. Small furry / leathery flying micey bods. You've got to love 'em. Nothing presents more headaches for ecologists and developers alike than bats...they're nocturnal, they move about loads, they hide in ridiculous places, you can't hear them without spending a lot of money and they're protected to buggery! Bring it on.

I have lost count of the number of hours I have spent in the last 2 months staring at buildings in the dark. I've been to hoverports, houses, barns, factories, studios, farms, housing estates and bunkers. And I've stared at trees. I've been in lofts - usually full of my favourite eight-legged friends, air raid shelters and even walked in the space above the domed arches of a famous Cathedral...all in the name of bats. I've found a 50 year old Kit-Kat wrapper. Thankyou bats.

I've spent hours analysing calls on the computer, sorting out the jumble of wet slaps, dry slaps, dry clicks and wet clicks into recognisable sonograms...and I still have little clue as to what bats do and why. They're like the best kind of girlfriend...keep you interested and up all night.

Shed felt
Reptiles. Scaly, slithery bods. Like to live under squares of shed roofing felt. The British countryside must be littered with millions of squares of shed felt...must be a boom time for reptiles with so much habitat! With all this hard work we ecologists are doing for them, they could at least empty my car of all the bloody granules that fall off the flipping felts....selfish gits.

Monday, 6 August 2007

In the grip of La Grippe...or drugged-up wanderings in Perigord

Well, my excitedly-anticipated trip to the wonderful Vezere valley in south-central France didn't quite turn out how I'd hoped...

Deciding to fly from Southampton to Bergerac was a good move as it only takes me 15 minutes to get to the airport and you get to fly on a proper plane with propellers and everything. What wasn't good was spending 2 hours in the very small departures lounge with hundreds of other people (Mr Sartre was right...hell is other people) feeling gradually more ill by the minute.

The flight itself I don't remember too much of...I was asleep for the most part after reading approximately 1 page of The Silmarillion...except the bloody annoying stewardess with the bloody annoying Mrs Merton accent twittering on about feck all. I left the plane muttering expletives and left my book doubt whoever found it will not have the intelligence to appreciate just how flipping superb Mr Tolkien is...

By the time I arrived in Les Eyzies to meet the missus I was well and truly sick...and did not even start to feel remotely better until back in Southampton last Thursday, a week later. Therefore, my entire week consisted of munching all the anti-flu drugs I could get hold of and walking around in a haze.

The Vezere valley is one of the most important sites on the planet in terms of human evolution. OK, sites such as Olduvai Gorge and Lake Turkana have yielded the most ancient finds, but for truly modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, and our very near neighbours Homo neanderthalensis, this area is the spiritual home. It was here that the type specimen for the earliest example of our own species was discovered. I was somewhat amused to hear that Cro-Magnon man literally means 'Man from Mr Magnon's hole' after the bones were found in a hole belonging to a Mr Magnon.

Anyway, the whole of the valley and most of the surrounding region is littered with stunning cave sites, rock shelters and river gravel deposits which have provided archaeologists with unrivalled research material (tools, paintings, sculptures, bones etc) into ancient human populations from the lower palaeolithic right up to the last glaciation and beyond.

I think by far the most emotive are the dozens of cave sites containing sculptures, engravings and paintings, some of which date back over 30,000 years and many of which are of breathtaking composition. Before you die, visit at least one of these sites (I recommend Font du Gaume with its buffalos and pair of reindeer licking each other, or Rouffinac with its 100 mammoths) will be amazed..words can't do them justice.

Anyway, the reason I was in this area in the first place was because the wife was studying stone tools in the Museum. The plan was that while she was working I could wander the fields looking at wildlife and caves.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth on Buddleja

Scarce swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius on Buddleja

Small pincertail Onychogomphus forcipatus on gravel

Caper Spurge Euphorbia lathyris

Meadow clary Salvia pratensis

Field eryngo Eryngium campestre

Lathyrus sp.

Unidentified damsel...any ideas??

White-legged damselfly Platycnemis pennipes
Sympetrum sp.
Snail farming....tried them at a restaurant...would rather stick hornets up my backside in future.
Large skipper

Monday, 16 July 2007

Southern damselflies....

With, at last, a break in the shitty weather, a friend and I set out to hunt down the Southern damselfy at a couple of local sites. The more I find out about this creature, the more I realise just why it's so bloody rare in the UK. It's rubbish at dispersing, flies like a big girl's blouse and gets bullied by every other insect on the planet.

Still, it's very rare and very important and I wanted to see one. First stop was some water meadows along the Itchen Navigation just south of Winchester, also home to Golden-ringed dragonfly and both British demoiselles. An hour of mooching about turned up plenty of Banded and Beautiful demoiselles, a Southern hawker, a host of butterflies including Meadow brown, Gatekeeper, Small tortoiseshell and a presumed Silver-washed fritillary, plus shoals of Minnow, a specimen Perch, Graylings and an Eel.

Southern hawker Aeshna cyanea

With no luck on the Southern damselfly front, we headed off to the perhaps the best site for this species - Itchen Valley Country Park. This reserve, nestled on the edge of Eastleigh and right next to the airport is a gem. The Itchen flows through it, and numerous old drowners and ditches criss-cross the meadows, providing superb habitat for aquatic plants and insects.

Within 10 minutes of arriving, having negotiated our way past the hordes of chav families in Southampton FC shirts having noisy barbeques (the undesirable underclass of Britain is all-pervading), we found veritable swarms of blues....Azure, Blue-tailed, Common and Southern. The Southerns are very soon distinguished by their weedy behaviour.

Being a SSSI, and the species being Red-listed, there was no way to get a really good look without breaking the law and catching one of them. However...spider to the rescue!! We managed to find one of the beasties caught in a web, and with some delicate work we were able to deny said spider of a rare meal - I hate spiders anyway so I don't feel too bad.

Southern damselfly Coenagrion mecuriale

With the damsel in hand, we were able to get a good look at the mercury mark on abdomen segment 2. Sorted!

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Bonnet de douche....

It's my last day at work tomorrow and I have 4 weeks of holidays to look forward to! As the missus is off to Les Eyzies in the Dordogne region to measure some bits of old flint or something I thought I might tag along for a week or so and do some more wildlife-bothering. I've been there before in another life and with another woman, and I seem to remember it being rather good for buterflies in particular...mmmm. Plan is to rent a bicycle and get lost.

Problem is I can't seem to find anything on nature reserves/wildlife sites in this area of France...nada, rien, bugger all...can somebody help?

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Hairy plughole

At last...after 2 weeks of waiting for a new router box to arrive from China, turns out the problem was with our fecking internet provider in the UK...makes you proud to be British, how we as a country seem to be spiralling further and further down the hairy plughole of utter incompetence and f**k-wittery. Anyway...

It's good to be back in Blue Chaffinch world and I finally have something to do of an evening other than watch shite TV and smoke. It means I can actually finish off writing the previous blogs and get on with creating some new ones...apparently quite a few people have been having a look at these pages..thankyou, gracias, thanks dudes, cheers y'big galahs etc etc.

The weather in the UK has been bloody terrible, and it seems that anyone without house insurance in the Midlands and Yorkshire has been flooded. Therefore, there's been little in the way of wildlife watching going on here lately. I'm also leaving my current job after 4 years to enter the murky world of ecological consultancy....

About 10 days ago I had the very great pleasure of accompanying a group of expert bryologists for a snoop around the grounds of my place of work, and I have to say it was the highlight of my month...totally fascinating. To my disappointment we didn't find any mosses new to science but at least there was a good range of common and a few scarcer species...I haven't got a clue what they were called but they looked flippin cool!

Apparently the best trees for bryophytes are field maple and ash as the bark has a higher pH than most other tree species. Suitably inspired by this delve into the world of micro-plants, I am determined to be able to name at least a dozen or so species by the end of the year.

Little owl adopting the "I want to kill you" pose.

Whilst wandering through the woodland, we came across our resident Little owl hiding in an old beech tree...after being scared witless by us, it flew into a nearby tree and tried to look like a Scop's owl.

Butterflies, dragons and wildflowers

Having said that I've done no wildlife watching lately, I have managed to get out and about a few times when it's not been raining...and been rewarded with some fantastic views of some of our more obvious invertebrates. In particular, I've enjoyed watching the breathless antics of Broad-bodied chasers on the pond at work. Since mid-June, these high-octane loons have been zooming around the pond and surrounding woodland, with males undertaking incredible aerial dogfights for first-ups on the one or two females present. The lucky stud then has to do some serious mate-guarding in order that a rival doesn't slip in a crafty one...

Female Broad-bodied chaser
Libellula depressa

Marbled whites gettin jiggy widdit.

Gatekeeper on carrot

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Destroy your computer

Experiencing some problems in brand new, all-singing + dancing wireless router is a piece of crap and needs to be sent away for repair. This is after a week of talking to various people in Bangalore, most of whom couldn't speak English....not a problem in itself, but it is when they are working for a British company dealing with complex customer complaints!!!!

Anyway, will hopefully be able to continue with the blog asap.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007 Scotland.

It's finally happened..I have a dot on the cluster map. I think it was me though as I'm currently in Scotland with students and viewed the site on the youth hostel computer. Oh well. No, hang on, someone in Spain has looked, as has someone in the Far East! Many thanks..hope you enjoy it! A big thanks to Joe for plugging the blog...I do appreciate it and it was worth forging your end of year grades to make it look like you actually did some work....

Just got back from a week in bonny Scotland. What a fantastic country...awesome scenery, amazing wildlife and very pleasant people. The weather was excellent on the whole ( a bit of rain here and there) and the creatures obliging. Managed to get a few good pics amongst the usual hundreds of rubbish ones!

Glen Coe
Just one night in the famous Glen, after a marathon drive in a minibus ridiculously limited to 62 mph. The road between Carlisle and Glasgow has to be the most monotonous anywhere in the world surely!

Being June, it is well into Highland midge season, and these little gits were out in serious numbers, making an evening meal at the Clacchie Inn almost as unbearable as the food (how can such a well-situated inn have such abysmal food??) Anyway, a bit miffed at the non-appearance of Jimmy Saville (lives nearby) I decided to get an early night before continuing up the way to the next stop, at Ratagan on the shores of Loch Duich.

A breakfast, with accompanying midges (at 0730!!), outside provided singing Willow warbler, Siskins, mewing Buzzards and what I believe to be female Purple hairstreaks flitting around the rush pasture behind the YHA. All the books I've read say that these butterflies do not really descend to ground level, but I'm convinced that's what they were..maybe someone can help? There were plenty of oaks around...maybe the things like to hang out in grassland below the trees? Or were they Little blues? Oh I don't know.

Fort William
A 2 hour stop under the watchful slopes of Ben Nevis provided a cholesterol-boosting Scottish fry up (how many kinds of fried meat can there be??) and the lovely sight of a pair of Black guillemot courting by the harbour. I was able to watch as they twittered and circled each other like a couple of teenagers on heat..warms the cockles.

I first visited this area in 2005, and it's got to be one of the best locations for a youth hostel anywhere on the planet. You can flick a fag butt from the door into the loch (if you wanted to). Loch Duich is a beautiful saltwater loch, and sits under the gaze of encircling mountains, notably the Five Sisters. It's also famous for Eilean Donan castle which was used in a BBC trailer years ago when they had those massive inflatible globes flying over British landscapes.

Anyway, it's also useful because of the wildlife you can see with relatively little effort within 100m of the hostel. Siskins chirp in the trees, Eiders and Goosanders bob along on the water with smart Common gulls, the boggy road verges hold Water avens, Foxglove, Londonpride, Common-spotted and Northern marsh orchids, the loch shores have drifts of thrift and Sea campion, Harbour porpoises can be seen at virtually any time, Red deer wander the hillsides, and Otters are almost guaranteed if you put in the time of an evening.

Northern marsh orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella

Skye and Neist Point
Having been to Skye twice before, the prosect of a full day there was mouthwatering. Unlike previous visits I did not want to bomb around trying to see as much as decided to head straight for Neist Point, the westernmost spur of the island. Parking the van at the car park, it's a good 15 minute walk up and downhill until you reach the lighthouse and suddenly the noise of hundreds of seabirds hits you...Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Gulls, Shags and Gannets all over the place.

Approaching the sheer cliff edges with care, I was able to hunker down on the rocks, pour meself a cuppa and watch as Kittiwakes cried and wheeled a few feet away from me...I was mesmerised for over an hour just watching these birds, even though they live on shit-covered rocks and make loads of noise.

Spanking adult above....grubby first-summer below.

An urge to punch a Razorbill
After an hour or so watching the Kittiwakes and failing to see a Basking shark, I wandered down to the sea's edge to get some closer photos of flyby birdies. I was busy musing on the geological forces that could've created such rectangular rock formations when suddenly a Razorbill flew right towards me and plopped down just out of view. I could tell that it had landed extremely close, and so with thoughts of quality pics I fixed the 500mm lens to the camera and stalked forward. However, the thing had completely was nowhere to be seen on the water and I wondered if I had imagined it. I soon realised that it was in fact sat on a rock not 3 feet from me preening itself...bonus...but hold on...there was something wrong with this bird and it was giving me the creeps.

I can't explain it, but something about this bird brought mildly agressive feelings to my can you not like the look of an auk? Look at the pictures, and tell me there's not something odd about looks like a bloody Rockhopper penguin with its silly crest thing and the way it just sat there bogging me was spooky. Maybe it was injured, sick or maybe it was actually my spiritworld familiar and I've just buggered my chakras or something. Anyway, see what you think...

There is definitely something wrong about this bird...see? just look at that expression

Neist point sea stacks....covered in do we find this acceptable when birds do it? If I was to have a poo on the pavement outside my house I'd be arrested....

Well anyway, Neist Point had some more goodies on offer as the day wore on. Whilst the students, true to form, got on with some involuntary wildlife-avoidance behaviour I sat on the rocks and decided that I was going to see a cetacean...and I did...a Minke whale that surfaced at least 6 times and even managed to blow some stale breath out of its hole...superb at only 100 or so metres away.

Beinn Eighe

The mighty Beinn Eighe. Britain's very first National Nature Reserve, bought for £4000 in 1951...the bloke from the Nature Conservancy got a right rollocking from his Whitehall bosses for buying an entire mountain rather than the few hundred acres of pine woodland he was supposed to. Lucky for us he knew a bargain when he saw one!

Containing the most westerly meaningful stand of Scot's pine in Britain and some breathtaking mountain scenery, Beinn Eighe NNR is a wonderful place and every naturalist in Britain should go there. The bryophyte communities are more or less unparalleled in Britain, the pine woodland is the closest thing we have to rainforest in the UK and Loch Maree holds the largest concentration of breeding Black-throated divers in the country. Beat that! Slap on about as many national, European and international designations as you can, and you have one of the best wildlife sites in Europe.

Remnant Atlantic 'Rainforest' at Beinn Eighe

Despite having been 3 times before, it was still with a fair amount of annoyance that I had to wait with the minibus for the ATS man to come from Inverary to repair our two knackered tyres whilst the students went for a walk with one of the SNH rangers. Tip - do not get tyre failure in the Scottish can be fatal...or else you have to wait for 4 hours while a gruff man in overalls ("Where the F***ing Hell are ye?") drives like a mad git to reach you in order to change the tyres because both the spare and tools have been removed for health and safety reasons.

Lesser twayblade Listera cordata

Abernethy & Loch Garten

After leaving the west coast, we headed across country to spend a couple of days at Aviemore on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. A buzzing little town, Aviemore is the ideal location for exploring the wealth of wildlife sites in this part of Scotland, and has the advantage of being a prime wildlife location in its own right.

Craigellachie NNR - birch forest, lochans, pergrines and scarce Odonates.
Immediately behind the Youth Hostel is Craigellachie NNR, an area of prime birch forest, rocky crags and glorious dubh lochans.

Abernethy Forest - gnarly old Scot's pine with an understory of Calluna and Vacciniums...and full of ticks.

Morel fungus at Abernethy. Reminds me of a Brian Aldiss novel 'Hothouse', in which the last few surviving humans (little green midgets) struggle to survive in a world dominated by mobile carnivorous plants and friendly giant termites. The hero of the story somehow gets attached to a parasitic morel that craves human thoughts...

Ospreys schmospreys

I have decided that there is something slightly creepy about the RSPB. Full respect for their conservation work - nobody does it better really - but they do seem to be taking over the world in a quasi-religious way('For birds, For people, For ever!!! Ha Ha Ha). Take Loch Garten for instance. Spiritual home of the Osprey in Britain. Set in the midst of stunning scenery and amazing habitats. What do they do? Give them names. They give the Ospreys names. Names.
The visitor centre resembles a church meeting, with the congregation sat on benches, staring at screens showing re-runs of 'famous' osprey highlights over the years ("Remember the 'big stick' fright of 1987? or the Capercaillie suicide mission of '94?"). They are told how the nest is entirely natural , except for the bits where the RSPB volunteers weld metal bars underneath it and replenish and tidy the sticks up each winter. Anyway, I'm ranting again. It just smacks a bit of animal hospital...can't we just let the poor beasts get on with it and be content with stopping egg thieves? Do we always have to interfere? Apparently all this year's chicks died despite mouth-to-beak first aid....

I reckon the best place to watch ospreys, that doesn't require looking at a TV screen, is the Bridge pub in Aviemore. At this quality establishment, you can sit outside munching on venison steak, sipping a pint of real ale and watch up to 6 ospreys wheeling about over the trout farm next much better do you want raptor watching to be?! This year, I thought I might even pop into the trout farm and try to catch some close-up shots of the birds. They apparently let Joe Public in for £2 to watch...provided you don't have a camera. Yes, I tried to wander in one evening with my very unprofessional-looking 500mm lens (it screams amateur) and was told by the miserable teenage bufoon that I had to pay a tenner cos I wanted to take photos!! Bloody cheek! Bollocks to that I said, and walked off muttering. Stick to the pub...

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Sierra de Gredos....Like Scotland but different

Having heard a great deal about the mighty Gredos range from a herpetologist colleague, I just had to visit seeing as we were only an hour's drive away. A long, winding hour as it turned out.
The Gredos, part of the Sistema Central that effectively divides southern Spain from the high plains of the Meseta, are by no means as visually impressive as other Iberian ranges such as the Picos de Europa or Sierra Nevada, but they have a certain rugged charm that reminds you of parts of Scotland. The main road from Plasencia in Extremadura to the northern Gredos in Castille y Leon takes you through whole hillsides devoted to cherry production...late May's a bit late, but I expect late April is amazing with the trees in blossom.

Nearly every village you drive through has stalls selling fresh cherries. We felt that we should buy some and so stopped by a stall run by some old dear. The wife, being near fluent in Castllian, was sent to acquire said fruits...and came back with the smallest amount for sale...2 kilos. Safe to say that the entire road verge for 50 km on both sides is sure to be bearing new cherry trees.

Plataforma de Gredos

According to Mr Muddeman (Birdwatcher's Guide to Extremadura)probably the best place to head to was the Plataforma de Gredos. Passing through pine plantations and stony, scrubby hillsides we stopped to have lunch near a small stream. The wife, just not getting it really, has the useful but sometimes infuriating habit of saying "Oh, what's that brown thing there?". This usually heralds a new bird for me, and this time was no exception...Ortolan. Yes, I know, they turn up all the time back home, but I happen to think it's best to see a bird where it truly belongs. Maybe I should've gone to a Marseille restaurant and watched it being force-fattened, drowned in Brandy, slow-roasted and then chewed for 15 minutes by some bod with a hanky on his head to stop God seeing...
Iberiae Yellow wagtail

The streamside habitat provided great views of iberiae Yellow wagtails (collecting food for their offspring), Dipper and Whitethroat. A couple of freaky birders were creeping us out so we moved on up to the car park at the Plataforma. Mid-morning it was, and the sun was beating down, and I was not in the frame of mind to walk up steep mountain tracks for four hours to reach the Big Lake carrying bins, camera and large lens. Therefore, we strolled for about 45 mins before heading off the path for a snooze. The chilly mountain winds and sharp thistles prevented anything resembling a satisfactory sleep, but slightly refreshed, we had a good root around the boulder scree for interesting flora (some amazingly day-glo lichens)before heading back down to the car.
Iberian wall lizard of the Gredos subspecies. That is a post-coital grimace on his face...we'd just disturbed him mid-stroke...his jewels were still hanging out.

Adult male Schreiber's Lizard

Having given up any hope of seeing Bluethroat in their main Iberian stronghold, I thought I'd have one last sulky scan of the cliffs for any bird-shaped specks. What did I find? Bloody Rock thrush!! Quite a distance away, but a stunning male nonetheless! Singing his little heart out he was..and directly behind him an Iberian Ibex! How's that for a wildlife experience?

Echium spp, common on road verges leading up to the Plataforma

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Trujillo-Caceres steppes and La Serena (or the arse end of nowhere)

Apart from the craggy wooded sierras and extensive dehesas, the other main habitat of Extremedura are the pseudo-steppe agricultural landscapes that provide opportunities to see a special suite of open plain species. According to the guidebooks I had the most accessible of these areas were between Trujillo and Caceres.

On our first day in the region we spent a few hours driving along the cratered tracks near Belen, just east of Trujillo. After failing miserably to follow any instructions in the guides, we hung a left along a dusty farm track that semed to be taking us absolutley nowhere...

After a short stop, during which I spent several minutes convinced that the rock I was looking at was in fact a Little bustard, we drove on and entered a scene reminiscent of the Ngorogoro crater (minus any large grazers, or lions, or hyenas etc etc). What we had found was a huge group of vultures (mostly Griffon but with a few Black monsters) feeding on a carcass. It may have been the heat haze but I was sure I could make out a tripod leg sticking up from amongst the festering ribcage.

The Bellend plains also turned up trumps for a few more decent species too. I saw my first ever Rollers and Great spotted cuckoo..result!
Look out magpies...
Santa Marta de Magasca

Whilst the Bellend plains were very productive indeed, it was an early morning visit to the steppes surrounding the lovely village of Santa Marta de Magasca that really did the business. Within two minutes of stopping the car I had my bins fixed on a pair of Great bustards not more than 100 yards away, plus a small group of about 6 Pin-tailed sandgrouse! What a start!

Another 5 minutes saw the arrival of a pair of absolutely stunning Rollers...what a bird...made for the early morning sunshine. With the car as a hide, we managed to observe a pair of these birds feeding on grasshoppers (presumably) and perching on a fence wire not 15 yards away!

From Santa Marta, there's a 25km long dirt track that meanders through the's not really suitable for a Corsa but what the hell, it wasn't our car. So for 25Km the scenery doesn't change much...mostly rocky, un-ploughable fields with the occasional sprig of broom scrub...but the birds just kept coming. Well mostly...

The main bird I was hoping to encounter was Little bustard...apparently there's about 10 billion of them...but I kept waiting. The journey was punctauted with regular sightings of Bee-eater, Roller, Calandra, Crested and Thekla larks, Southern Grey shrike, Black kite, White stork, Pin-tailed sandgrouse...but no flippin bustards! At one point, passing through some trackside broom bushes we had a veritable flock of 5 Great spotted cuckoos...we even had to drive carefully around one who refused to get out of the road!

Southern Grey shrike

At about 20 km, after meeting possibly the largest flock of House sparrow I've ever seen (they stupidly refused to fly left or right and so knackered themselves out by stopping-flying ahead of us for several K's!)I finally saw a bustard -shaped blob off to the left at about 50 yards. Being midday, the haze was a severe nuisance, but yes, it was my very first Little bustard. Not the stunning view of a farting, leaping male I'd hoped for, but a solitary female pretending to be a statue will do.

La Serena...thousands of hectares of nothing

La Serena. La Serena. Mmmm. For months I've been reading of this fabled place whilst smoking fags in my chilly conservatory/smoking room, dreaming of flocks of bustards, sandgrouse and Montagu's harriers. The largest single area of unculivated land in Europe. Home to tens of thousands of steppe birds....

Somewhere in this picture there are thousands of beady bustard eyes staring back...

Ok, we didn't do it justice. We only spent 3 hours in the whole area. But seriously, we covered a lot of ground and had virtually no reward! The Roller nestboxes are at least 50 yards from the road, and you can't pull in anyway as it's illegal and highly dangerous. We saw 3, yes 3, harriers. Despite careful searching we saw no bustards or sandgrouse. And the villages are bloody awful! Talk about back woods. I half expected Clint Eastwood to be walking along the main streets.

What the area needs is a picturesque casa rural set up for visiting naturalists so they don't have to drive for 2 hours from anywhere remotely decent to stay. I'm being slight harsh here...I'm sure the area deserves its reputation, and I did see Little Ringed plover and Black-winged stilt in a roadside pool, so maybe it just requires a more concerted effort. PS If you are the slightly elderly bearded British gent who I was rude to please forgive me..I'm not usually moody but was having a bad day.