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.

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