A Kitchen-sink Drama

I am a naturalist of almost 50 years continuous practice, but I am still not entirely sure what to make of these moments. Maria and I were having our customary pot of tea when just before 8 o’clock there was a murderous shriek, which we had heard last year when I DSC_8623 (2)

plucked a rather dazed immature starling (alive and well; see my Guardian country diary here) from our wood-burning stove. This bird was clearly in a different danger and, sure enough, just beyond our back kitchen door, on the concrete strip that bounds the garden, jammed up tight against a low perimeter wall, was a young sparrowhawk with an adult starling.

For all their timidity when in the presence of humans, sparrowhawks with prey are remarkably persistent and brazen. You might have thought two agitated humans passing just 3m away, albeit behind thick glass, would have spooked him (actually I am not entirely sure which sex this sprawk is and would welcome feedback; it looked small enough for a male but was decidedly brown, had no grey above, except one single moulted feather visible in the image below. That it is last year’s bird is fairly sure. See the pale tonsure and rufous hind crown, as well as the yellow irides, which turn orange in adults) but he was unrelenting.

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The other thing that was so apparent was the air of indifference to its victim. I chose my opening picture because so far as I know there was nothing there to elicit that upward  stare by the sparrowhawk . And notice how, as it kneads the life out of the starling (next two images), it barely looks at the other bird. Yet the starling is yelling ‘No!’ in its face, but it looks everywhere but at the victim. Of 30+ plus shots of this moment, only one suggests eye contact between the two. Of course the sparrowhawk must keep itself safe from its own predators as it persists in this rather vulnerable state, but you might also have thought that watching for that long yellow starling bill, would have been wise.

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The other striking thing, aside from the sparrowhawk workaday ‘pitiless’ spirit, was the sense of pure terror that must have assailed the poor starling (see below). What made its plight all the more alarming is that this spring, as in every spring i can recall, I have starlings nesting in my office roof, just above where the pictures were taken. Even as I type now I can hear the chicks making their sneezing, wheezing begging calls and occasionally I see a parent fly into the roof cavity with food. Could that bird beneath the hawk be one of these parents? i cannot say. Will my chicks survive if there is only one parent? I probably will be unable to tell because i am due to leave for a trip. But I can tell you that throughout the latter stages of the whole drama, while i was rushing back and forth changing lenses and finding other vantage points to photograph the action, my starling nestlings in their nest were completely silent. Had they intuited or been informed that there was imminent danger?

DSC_8671 (2)Eventually the sparrowhawk carried the near-dead starling to the back wall of our back garden and proceeded to pluck and eat it. I continued to photograph the developments from an upstairs window and was mesmerised by the thoroughness of the sparrowhawk’s feeding method. The part first eaten was the head cavity, including the brain and both eyes. The work was done so thoroughly that eventually I could see almost the whole bare skull. DSC_8809 (2)The other thing that I would like to convey is the muscularity of this little hawk, who may not weigh 200 gm and just double the starling. Eating and plucking was a process that involved the  whole body and one sequence in particular which i produce in its entirety shows the sheer physicality of the process of eating. The ten images (to be read in sequence) represent less than 30 seconds. Look at the intensity of action, the whole body including that entirely elevated, pointing-in-the-air tail, working to prize food from the tough skin for which starlings are well known.

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Here as a reprise in greater detail is that central shot when the bird is at its most focused.

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Finally I would say, as a moral commentary on the experience, just moments after it flew off I was placing our fish supper in the fridge for tonight. Is there any moral or attitudinal distinction between us and the sparrowhawk? I think not.

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Painting Africa: Martin Woodcock 1935-2019

P1160359The birding world woke up last Sunday morning to learn that Martin Woodcock had died after a short illness. He and Barbara have been friends for more than quarter of a century, from a time when I was on the council of the African Bird Club, along with John Fanshawe, Gary Allport, Eng-Li and Paul Green and many others. Martin was our chair and later president of the society. Both he and Barbara were often fabulous hosts to meetings at their Kent home. Those occasions were always memorable. Later the Woodcocks moved to Blakeney in north Norfolk and for many years Barbara was our go-to girl for framing our paintings and art.

Everyone will tell you the same thing. They were, they are terrific people: kind, warm, modest, funny and lovable. This is a small tribute to Martin, on whom I wrote a short piece in 2005. Here’s the text:

“Some people are 50 years old and some are 70 years young. The wildlife artist Martin Woodcock might have the physical age of the second but he has the vitality of the first and has crammed into his three score and ten as much as most of us would achieve if we lived to be both ages added together. His work is currently part of the Norfolk Open Studios programme, which gives us a rare opportunity to meet the man and enjoy his artwork display at his Blakeney home.

My immediate impression on seeing the exhibition is the sheer variety of styles and materials. There are lovely loose pencil field sketches, intensely colourful oil works on wood, freer and more expressive water colours of Norfolk birds, such as a barn owl ghosting across an autumn landscape.

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Perhaps my favourite is the painting of a small group of yellowhammers, whose dry metallic song – once known to every schoolchild as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ – was once one of the defining sounds of drowsy summer evenings in north Norfolk. The yellowhammers are painted in acryllics, a medium with which the artist has a love-hate relationship (apparently the paint dries too quickly). Although it is typical of the man that despite these reservations he plunged headlong into experimentation with acryllics.

The result is a detailed and deeply intimate portrait that, because of the darkness and enclosed feel to the surrounding vegetation, intensifies the sulphur yellow of the birds. I also love the way in which the subjects’ brilliant colours are picked out, one by one, in the lichens and foliage detail of the setting. Despite the seeming incongruity between the yellowhammers and their gloomy deadwood perch, there is, in fact, a beautifully harmonious interplay. The work exemplifies the way that much more is often happening in a Woodcock painting than might immediately strike the eye.

The current exhibition gives a good insight into his artistic versatility, yet it will tell you very little about his passionate understanding of music, his attachment to reading – and writing – poetry, his love of photography. Nor will you find any hint that by the age of 40, this Kent-born naturalist wasn’t a professional artist at all, but a stockbroker in the city. Although his passion for wildlife had been in the blood since he was four and his first ever published drawing, exactly 50 years ago, was notably of a bird seen in north Norfolk.

 

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a plate from a late book Safari Sketchbook: A Bird Painter’s African Odyssey, in which I had a small hand

His big break came when he was commissioned by the publishers Collins to produce the plates for a field guide. It was, in a sense, in his guise as illustrator, that I first met him 15 years ago in the forest of Thailand. He wasn’t there in person, but he was present in the latest of his book, A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, and indirectly he helped me to identify every bird that we saw throughout our month in the country.

Field guides are intriguing documents. Some become such close companions, particularly during a long journey, that they are much more than written accounts of a group of animals or plans. The relationship is well captured in Redmond O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Into the Heart of Borneo, where the author treats his copy of ‘Smythies’, his guide to Bornean birds, more like a sacred text. These books get covered in hand-scribbled notes and are so loaded with memories about the creatures that they helped you to recognise and the context  in which they were encountered . And the more thumbed and battered the guide, the more one treasures it later as a personal memento of the past. Eventually one can also come to regard the author as a sort of friend by proxy.

 

(Part of a couple of Martin’s plates for The Birds of Africa)

It is in this context that so many of us know Martin, because he is one of the most prolific illustrators of field guides in our time. His titles include a Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, The Birds of Oman, and the Gem Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. This last shirt-pocket-sized work has been in print for a quarter of a century and has sold perhaps as many as 500,000 copies.

Undoubtedly his most important contribution as an illustrator is his work for the seven volume The Birds of Africa. Just the vital statistics of the project should indicate the scale of his achievement. It took him more than 25 years to complete, it includes 220 plates of more than 5,000 bird figures and covers all the species of the entire continent. The quality of the workmanship evolved over the course of the project, but the whole set is remarkable and the plates in the final volumes include some of Martin’s finest work.

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When I hear about the work of great nineteenth-century wildlife artists such as John Gould or J J Audubon, I am left in awe at the sheer stamina they showed for such huge multi-volume projects and wonder how on Earth they managed it. The Birds of Africa is a work created in much the same fashion. The key difference is that its artist is still very much with us and for one more week you can go along and meet him and ask how it was all done.”

 

I have two very fond memories of Martin and Barbara. One is from when I gave a speech of appreciation from us all when he stepped down as Chair of  African Bird Club. The second comes every time I lift my binoculars to look at the next wonderful wild creature or plant. Because a few years ago I bought Martin’s old Swarovskis. All naturalists will tell you how treasured their ‘bins’ are; mine are now doubly so.

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Postcards from the Solomons No 1 Sharks at Fatboys

Before I saw Fatboys Resort, just east of Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, the name made me think of nightclubs and loud music on tropical beaches. It conjured images of suntanned young things with cocktails and leisure. Yet it wasn’t like that.Fatboys P1140051

The bar and restaurant were on a raised platform entirely surrounded by sea, approached by a jetty running 50 metres into the shallows. At the other end was a beach fringed with coconut palms. By day there was a kind of light show where the impossibly blue swell of the South Pacific, refracted and intensified against the white-coral sands, glanced up and played in shadow on the underside of the thatched roof.

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There was also leisure and at lunch I liked to order a beer at the bar and walk to the restaurant’s open side to watch the reef fish. Mostly they were black-banded snappers (tosi in the local language), hand-length fish with inky blue stripes and yellow patches along their dorsal areas. They swayed beneath the platform, the colours quaking as they moved. Occasionally staff tossed breadcrumbs and what had been a loose shoal wandering through the water column became a writhing knot of sunlit colour and movement where the tosi massed at the surface.

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By night, Fatboys was a lozenge of light over warm water, where we could relax amid after-dinner conversation and the click of the pot balls as the staff paced to play around a faded pool table.Fatboys P1140013

Yet a standard ritual of the evening was for spotlights to be turned on at the back and, as if summoned by some electrical messenger, the intended recipients suddenly seemed to gather before us. At first they were just dark shapes looming out of a wider darkness. These then hardened into fish, a metre and a half in length, shining grey like highly polished sandstone.

Their pectoral fins were long and scythe-shaped and, with their caudal fins, they carried black margins like edges ground into long blades. When the fish moved, the limbs swayed back and forth. Yet there seemed a disconnect between the sweet leisure of the parts and the quickness of the whole organism. The animals passed from one edge of the light to its furthest margins in a fraction of a second.

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And when the fish guts hit the water, all converged. Half a dozen of them in one extraordinary melee of hunting prowess – perfected by that slow-chipping chisel wielded across 400 million years of evolutionary development – came together as a circle of black-finned reef sharks.

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They were just a body’s length away from where we leaned to watch. They swerved and merged and crossed one another as smoothly as layers of oil. Their heads were thickened meat wedges. Occasionally a glass glint from a tiny eye shone up at us. They looked weaponised – precisely like the monsters that have haunted the Western imagination for centuries – but I was struck by none of the generic anxiety, nor the violence of their frenzied feeding. What hit me most was grace and beauty. Whenever they swept into the food, the speed of their movements created an effervescence where the water in front and around them was displaced. A momentary sheath of fizz curled about each fish, but it also survived as a fast-dispersing ghost of its last passage. Second by second the effects of all this changed but it wreathed the sharks in light and water and then played out on the surface of their sandstone bodies as a secondary set of fractal shadows.

Occasionally a dorsal fin broke the waters and fired a spray of droplets up at us. I caught one splash on my lips and could taste the salt of it. P1140046

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For Sale, Nature Reserve – One Careful Owner

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For the last eight years Blackwater Carr has been a major part and a central adventure in our lives. Yet things change, we change and now Maria and I have reluctantly conclude that we have to sell it. It has absorbed an enormous amount of our energy and planning and, in return it has given us great fulfilment, not to mention an unending supply of firewood for the woodburner. Our hope is that we can pass it on to someone who will love it for much the same reasons as ourselves and will continue to work with it to enhance its wildlife potential. It is presently on sale with Forests.co.uk and visits are managed by its staff member Bob Liles (click here).

However I thought it might be helpful to give any visitor or prospective buyer a virtual taster of it through the seasons so you can appreciate what it has to offer. If you can get to see it only in winter it is hard to imagine the extent of colour and the richness of wildlife that emerges in spring and summer. What’s so striking about Blackwater is its dynamism as a place, changing dramatically between the seasons.

The site was originally two fields of grazing marsh that started to scrub over with disuse after the war. The first field of about two acres, which I call Sallow Carr, is now well wooded with willow and increasingly alder. I am leaving this area to develop more completely into carr woodland and focus most of my interventions on what I call Oak Meadow. Even so Sallow Carr is a great place for butterflies, grasshoppers and bumblebees, all of which enjoy the stands of mixed flowers including meadowsweet, angelica, flag iris and great hairy willowherb which flourish every year.

Sallow Carr is really excellent for wildlife. I love to get down to Blackwater in April and find the first Willow Warblers and Blackcaps of the year, usually singing in the encircling alders. Both of the birds breed at the site. The flag irises that flourish near the entrance  flower in May and their great tubular flowers are a real draw for several types of hoverfly but also Garden Bumblebee. This beautiful creature has a tongue long enough to get into those deep iris nectaries.

From high summer through to autumn  Sallow Carr is  a favourite area for hunting dragonflies including both Scarce Chaser and Norfolk Hawker. The track runs through the tall vegetation and they like the corridors of warm air where insect prey are gathered. Perhaps the most beautiful, as well as one of the most common, is the Banded Demoiselle. Here’s a photo I took of a male in Sallow Carr, while the other species are Hairy Dragonfly (above: they are often the first dragonfly to appear in spring) and then Scare Chaser.

At the far side of Sallow Carr is a dividing dyke where I have recorded minnows. Its bank have grown thick with Goat Willow and i have freed up from encircling scrub a number of bird-sown Hawthorns and a single Ash tree. In the clearing, which has also become a great spot for Fleabane and Marsh Thistle, both much loved by insects especially bumblebees, I have also built and installed a site for solitary bees and wasps. You can see it on the right as you pass through from one meadow to the other.

Another detail in this area are the flowering hawthorns. They have been a major draw for a moth called Black-headed Gold pictured below (left). This is among the scarcer species found at Blackwater, which may have yielded more records for the moth than anywhere else in Norfolk. My other speciality is the Black-bordered Piercer, which turns up in early/mid April on the trunk of my Oak and nowhere else. I have scoured other areas in Norfolk for this unobtrusive little oak specialist but not found it anywhere.

Oak Meadow is the larger of my two fields (c3 acres)  and the place where I have concentrated a lot of my efforts. It is quieter and more secluded and the area on the far dyke gives you a great sense of being immersed in nature. It is the place where I camp or have barbecues and which is great for some of the children’s activities that we have run at Blackwater.

A major part of the work is cutting about an acre of meadow, firstly with a specialised mowing machine belonging to the Hawk & Owl Trust, then latterly with Austrian hand scythes, here operated by my brother Andy.

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The L-shaped meadow has also been sown with Yellow Rattle, a hemiparasitic plant occurring naturally in many British meadow types. It saps the energy of the coarser grasses and allows more delicate plants to flourish. Since I started the annual meadow cut seven years ago a whole range of insects and plants have moved into the shorter sward. Marsh and spear thistle hardly occurred at all before I bought Blackwater, but have particularly increased and both are really welcome as important plants for bumblebees and other specialists. Click on the pics to make them larger. They are in clockwise order from left (ruby-tailed wasp, Gorytes laticinctus a Red-Data wasp, and an ichneumon a parasitoid wasp on marsh thistle laying its eggs probably in the larvae of  some kind of thistle gall fly.

 

Other plants that have flourished with my cutting are, of course, the Yellow Rattle itself, Ragged Robin, which was not present before, Fleabane and Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil. It is wonderful to see how the dried seeds become the flower-rich patch the following spring.

 

All the cuttings that we take off the meadow are put into a great fertile heap that maintains an elevated temperature in winter and is a fantastic refuge for small mammals, including voles and shrews, but also spiders especially tens of thousands of little wolf spiders. But it is also great for Grass Snakes that have started to lay their eggs in its depths.

Finally the veg pile known as ‘Slub Mountain’, which rises to 4 metres at the end of the hay festival, is great for people. Here are Andy, MC, Oscar and Rachy after a final session.

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And here is the forest school group brought by Rosie Hoare to help with practical tasks but also to help put Blackwater to good use.

We normally try to combine work with pleasure and the hay cut usually involves a routine barbecue and beer.

Blackwater is a fantastic microcosm of the Broads National Park which surrounds it. To date I have recorded well over 600 species of plant and animal and am in no doubt that it would eventually produce a list of thousands. Encouraging experts in all sorts of fields has been part of the fun. Here are the lovely Helen Smith spider specialist with her friend and former county recorder on spiders Pip Collyer. Then Jackie Fortey with her husband Richard who is an acclaimed author as well as a top mycologist to boot, helped me sort out a few of my mushrooms.

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All of this goes to show that Blackwater is great for nature and great for people. To date I have used it as a place to work, to camp, to gather wood, to teach writing, to catch and study moths, to inspire poets, to encourage children to work and play, to learn and to relax. I am hoping all of this can be continued. IMG_7022IMG_4830

Here finally is a poem by my friend and poet Matt Howard who has played an enormous role in enhancing the patch for wildlife. His glorious Crome, which was inspired by Blackwater, appeared, in turn, in my book Our Place. Matt’s last line resonates powerfully throughout the entire book as a statement of what we need to do.

I cherish the idea of Blackwater inspiring people, who inspire action for places like Blackwater. I am hoping to find someone to continue the virtuous circle.

 

to cast a tool of ash and hooked iron

to take care in boots at the edge of standing water

to throw from the shoulder, then heave from the lumbar spine

to clear a dyke of leaf-fall and slub from the past three decades or further

to feel a suck and pop of sedge-roots tearing from bog

to spit splash-back of festered water from one’s lips

to wretch one’s balance of vows and curses where no one else is listening

to imagine a cut of clearer water

to haul deeper with long-drawn tines

to blister then callus both hands in unfavourable conditions

to consider the phased wing-strokes of dragonflies

to listen to the short, descending arc of willow warbler song whilst working

to see sunlight on the nodes of a Norfolk hawker’s forewing

to act with the whole body and mean it

 

‘Crome’, Matt Howard

The Nature of Nature: a brief inquiry?

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Here’s a scene from nature that many will recognise. The setting sun, the colour-smeared sky and birds passing to roost. Actually a flock of cranes, wild clarion-voiced migrants from the north. But here’s the thing – which parts of this scene are also parts of nature, and which are not?

The cranes – one of Europe’s ultimate symbols of wilderness – for sure. But what about the clouds and the air, that mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, at a ratio of about 4:1 parts, then there’s the condensed moisture of the clouds and what about that big bright falling star, whose light takes just over eight minutes to reach Earth from its place at the heart of our solar system 150 million kilometres away? Aren’t these more intangible elements also parts of nature too?

Then what about this scene below. _DSC4972

Which of these details are ‘natural’? The ducks, ok. But the glass bottles are derived from the commonest element on Earth, silicon, while the discarded plastic, the human-made scourge of our modern oceans, is ultimately made from carbon laid down in the rotting forests of the Carboniferous?

And if we are not sure if they are all parts of nature what about this scene? Liverpool Street is both a marvel and the kind of ‘environment’ that drives me instantly back to the sticks where I live. Yet, isn’t it – aren’t we humans – at some level, representative of the same vibrant life as shown in the first image?  IMG_4950

The reason I ask the questions is because I was recently at an event at the Green Party conference in Bristol. It was a panel discussion entitled ‘For love of nature’. (I must first say that it gave me an opportunity to meet two heroes. Caroline Lucas, one of the great parliamentarians of our time,  carries upon her shoulders the political aspirations of the 500,000+ people who voted for her party last year. And what about the 2015 election when the Green Party got 1.3 million votes and we still have to rely on this one remarkable woman to make our case in the House of Commons). Hey ho.

Also there was Jonathon Porritt, whom I have listened to and been inspired by since I was in my twenties. Present on the panel were the hugely impressive Mary Colwell (twixt Caroline and Jonathon) and Laura Mackenzie of the Soil Association: far right. (And me looking rather tired after 136 nights on the road or may be it was the night before at Tim Dee’s bat cave, celebrating his fabulous new book Landfill!)Conference nature panel

What was striking about the event, which was packed and hugely stimulating, was that each of us made a case for nature, but each of us had different versions of what we meant by ‘nature’.

A good example came from Mary, who has written a superb book Curlew Moon on the plight of this wader, which is now threatened with extinction in these islands, and whose decline partly results from predation. (At the Bird Fair in August, where we spoke on a similar panel, Mary made a brave case for the need for predator control if we really want to retain our curlews. I think she’s right but not everyone on that panel would have been in agreement.)

The point, however, is that ‘nature’ in her presentation was the stuff we could see through the window, largely in green. And a big part of her campaigning this year is for a GCSE that focuses on that kind of nature. The things – animals, plants etc – which require species recognition and which were once the staples of the school nature table.

In contrast Jonathon and Laura talked mainly about it in terms of the carbon content of our cropped lands . This has been terribly depleted by intensive agriculture. They also focused on agrochemicals and the threats they pose to soil structure and microbial content. Equally they spoke of how carbon leached from the land was then added to the sum of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which, as we all know, drives global climate change.

My own version of nature was, of course, partly centred on those things visible through the window. The nature out there that referred to as ‘wildlife’. But I made a plea for recognising a wider version that included the gut flora present in every single one of the people that was there, that included the ancient Carboniferous sunlight as expressed in the electric lights overhead, and included the paper on which all participants were busy scribbling. I suggested that we have to see ourselves as part of nature because only by owning and recognising our participation in the wider, larger nutrient cycles described by Jonathon or Laura can we start to own our responsibilities for the rest of life.

The central point to make, however, is that each was talking about quite complex but separate versions and it struck me that the confusion and imprecision as we speak of our ‘love of nature’ are a problem and challenge.

There are broadly two campaigning groups in British environmentalism and they focus on

1. non-human nature (ie wildlife) and what you might call

2. ‘human nature’, or perhaps more precisely the parts of nature in which humans play major ecological roles (climate change, nutrient cycles, plastic pollution etc) .

1. and 2. are represented by the Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth.

Here’s a picture to summarise both. The red colour behind the tree was the side of a metal container lorry. Which part of nature do you see? The relentless human traffic in the Earth’s resources as part of our global economy, or the spectral outline of a photosynthesising, oxygen-producing plant?_DSC5248

I think we need some baseline clarity on what we mean when we talk about nature, instead of talking past one another – even among friends – with our overlapping but separate versions of the whole process. We have to see ourselves as within nature which is the key starting place for people like Laura Mackenzie and Jonathon Porritt. Those who focus on nature as ‘out there’, like Mary Colwell and me, need to start talking about nature that includes ourselves.

I suppose the best single illustration of that specific issue is the strapline currently used by the RSPB, ‘giving nature a home’. No one sensible would question the organisation’s commitment and championship of nature. Yet in these 4 words are summarised a fundamental schism between us and nature that dates back to the Old Testament and which some see as the core of our problematic relationship with the rest of life. We can no more give nature a home than we can separate ourselves from the carbon cycle that  drives climate change. We and it are part of one process.

Similarly those organisations and individuals who take enormous pains to recycle, or to avoid flying, or campaign on climate change; equally those newspapers or TV correspondents that talk about the ‘environment’ and ‘environmental issues’ when they really only mean issues that entail human ecological processes (nature 2), and have almost no awareness or concern for species loss and wildlife depletion;  they need to recognise that their version of nature is partial too.

The day is almost done here in Claxton. So here is nature in all its complexity: con trail and ivy tod, pyrrocantha and carbon consumption. I will add finally that my friend Jeremy Mynott is working on a book about the nature of nature. We need it urgently. Because when we talk of nature we need to know  precisely what we mean.

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A View to a Thrill

An exciting development is a new link with the optical company Opticron, whose binoculars I have been recommending to members of birding classes or  tour groups for more than two decades. Now it is official. Link here.Opticron Logo (347)

So I wanted to test-drive Opticron’s headline-grabbing Imagic 8×42 binoculars for myself. Where better than Aigas Field Centre and my week-long Autumn Birds programme. Not only did the bins face the kaleidoscopic light conditions of the Scottish Highlands and the night-vision requirements of Aigas’ badger hide but, as always, we were looking at creatures as varied in size as wood ants and bottle-nosed dolphins.

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The binoculars passed all these tests with flying colours. I found the robust feel and weight of them really comfortable. They are a little lighter than my previous 8×32 binoculars. One glitch was that they focus towards infinity with the focus wheel running anti-clockwise and both of my previous binoculars work the other way. It entailed a little bit of adjustment. And I also found the attaching and adjusting of the main lanyard unnecessarily fiddly. But where it really matters – optically – they are superb.

So too the Opticron MM4 60 ED telescope, which I tested with a 12-36x zoom lens. In fact the first bird that I and the group looked at through this little gem was a pair of  adult White-tailed Eagles over their eyrie. It was a wonderful thrill.

The Aigas rangers all have Swarovski equipment and superb it is, but I was hugely impressed that this little fellow held its own. It truly is excellent. Obviously you are gaining hugely from its tiny size. For example my other scope weighs a hulking 1.9kg (4lb 4oz in old money). The Opticron MM is just 950gm (2lb 2 oz), less than half the weight. On this occasion I had a pretty robust tripod for those blustery Scottish conditions, but the scope’s light weight and compactness made a huge difference to my shoulders. I could easily imagine using it with a monopod without much loss of stability. it really is convenient.

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Yet what was most impressive was the clarity of the image. It is pin sharp and the light-gathering of the 60mm object lens owes nothing much to the far larger telescopes of the Aigas rangers. One detail of the Opticron MM4 is the additional fine-tuning focus knob next to the main wheel. At first I found it a little confusing, but once I worked out the advantages and function of it, it was really helpful. Another bonus is the 12x minimum-magnification option, which gives you a really wide-angle image. That is very helpful especially when clients are playing with it for themselves and are unfamiliar with the intricacies of scope-use. Essentially they can find what they want to look at. Then zoom in.

The real merit of this Opticron kit comes into tight focus when you look at the price tags for upper-end binoculars and telescopes. Anyone paying close to £4,000 for a high-end ‘bins-and-scope’ combination has every right to expect the sine qua non. But I think both of my new optics stood up in all field conditions, even when the North Sea was pounding ashore at Fraserburgh in northerly-backed black winter waves. The bins loved it. In terms of value for money they are absolute winners.

Here are some wildlife highlights for good measure: (top) gannets off the Grampian coast at Rattray lighthouse, (middle) pink-footed geese over the same spot and (btm) one of Aigas’ delightful regular pine martens.

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Big birds on the table – Extremadura style

Last year in Extremadura I was a guest of Helios Dalmau of Photo Raptor at his company’s dedicated vulture-watching hide in the Sierra de San Pedro. It was one of the wildlife highlights of last year.

Vultures in flight have long been renowned for their aerial grace, but perhaps more overlooked is the powerful impact of these birds on the ground. Part of the thrill is the sheer proximity of so many big volatile creatures, which can suddenly turn a feeding ground into a seething force-field of avian mass and muscle.

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The maelstrom of heaving bodies is accompanied by a comparably unstructured cacophony of hisses,  squeals and yikkering notes that are hardly euphonious, but for any observer they carry enormous emotional impact. Vultures in such feeding frenzies also demonstrate behaviour that is highly theatrical but, perhaps more unexpectedly, is enormously beautiful and full of humour. I would place the spectacle among the finest in all European ornithology.

A British birder who has never seen it can probably get a sense of the impact if they imagined a big flock of starlings. Think of all that fizz and intensity and those stabbing, bickering birds, but increase the size of each one by a factor of 100. The larger Gyps and Aegypius vultures are well known to exhibit a structured pattern of activity when assembled at such feeding sites. Despite the aura of chaos, vultures will wait their turn if a food source permits access to only limited numbers. Older and larger birds invariably get first turn but it is thought that digestive enzymes trigger aggression impelling younger, less-experienced birds to force their way to the front. The individuals that have fed well then concede ground and so feeding opportunities are rotated among the full assembly.

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Griffon Vultures deploy a stylised threat posture when they sally forward in these situations. The very long neck is extended in a way that emphasises the bird’s reptilian ancestry. As the formidable meat-cleaving bill snakes ahead of its owner, so the enormous wings are often unfurled to full span and held at 90 degrees to the body, so that the bird advances on the broadest front. Or the wings, like the head and neck, are driven forward as part of a three-pronged assault. This heraldic-looking creature then processes in a slow, mincing goose-step that is one part controlled aggression, one part fabulous comedy.

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An indisputable attraction of vulture restaurants in southern Spain is the opportunity to observe Cinereous Vultures in good numbers. At Sierra de San Pedro there were several dozens and it is hard to overstate the impact of this glorious bird at close quarters. Mature Cinereous Vultures stand over a metre tall and possess an enormously deep bill with a long dagger-like nail that is equipped to carve open the hide of fresh carcasses.

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In adults the basal gape and sere are mauve-blue, but in immatures it is chewing-gum pink (see the pic above this one). At all ages the species possesses on the chest sides, front and back, a series of spiky neck quills that rise and fall as a perpetual barometer of their owner’s changing mood. In older birds the neck itself is often bare and the chest hackles paler and more luxuriant, making the effect of this ‘courtier’s ruff’ even more impressive.

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The way in which the former species displaces any rival at a food source involves two characteristic manoeuvres. One entails an individual vigorously leaping forward, shovelling its huge yellowish feet foremost, followed by two-and-a-half metres of stiff flight feather in a formidable dark arc of aggression. The bird literally bulldozes opponents out of its path.

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Another displacement technique that has more finesse – and is comparable to the Griffon Vulture’s goose-stepping advance – is even more captivating. In this the wings are drooped and pressed back so that bird acquires a broad-shouldered, flat-backed posture. The head is lowered, the scapulars stick upright and the tail is raised and fanned giving the bird a curiously turkey-like profile (you can see something of it in this Youtube footage I posted here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kc40xISr7Q). The vulture then proceeds with an exaggerated foot fall that pitches it from side-to-side in an awkward but muscular swagger. All at once the bird looks ancient, magisterial and very funny.

Here it is (next two pics) if you cannot for any reason access Youtube. But I recommend you see the three pieces I posted because they really convey the joy of these birds.

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A striking element of all the interactions is that the birds seem super-charged with aggression. Altercations between pairs or groups flare up constantly and vultures going full throttle at opponents will occasionally fall over with their wings stretched flat to the ground like feathered rugs (the two pics below capture this).

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For all the drama, however, there appears to be little meaningful violence. In short, vulture aggression is mainly for show.

Vulture restaurants do far more than provide arresting theatre for human observers. The three larger European species  have enjoyed a revival of fortunes partly because of SFSs. Bearded Vultures have roughly trebled in France and Spain to 164 pairs. Spanish Cinereous Vultures have also gone from 250 to 2,068 pairs and today the single Extremaduran range of Sierra de San Pedro holds more breeding pairs (300) than all Spain in the 1970s. This success has inspired the French to their own reintroduction projects and there are now 24 pairs north of the Pyrenees. It is the revival of Western Europe’s Griffon Vultures, however, that offers the most impressive figures. As recently as 1999, Forsman in The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East proposed a Spanish figure of c7,500-8,000 pairs with a total number of individuals of c23,000-24,500. Just 20 years later the breeding population for Spain is 30,000 pairs and, if one uses the same ratio of pairs to total individuals as cited by Forsman, then the country may hold c88,000 birds.

Aside from their positive effects on the birds themselves, I think these vulture-feeding sites, with their unique opportunities to see such large creatures at close quarters, are good for people too. They help us to realise that vultures are truly magnificent.

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Lake Prespa: In Greece’s Big Country

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British naturalists have been well aware of the avian riches of Lake Prespa for many decades. Yet I doubt today if one in 100 of those going on a wildlife holiday to Greece have ever visited. It is odd, especially since Prespa has a list of over 260 bird species, more plants than are on the British list and almost three times the number of butterflies. The place also supports some of the rarest birds in the world, with the largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans found anywhere on Earth.

Another wildlife guide observed recently that had Prespa been ‘less remote it would be crammed with visitors coming for the scenery as much as for the birds’. Yet on most days you see no one but locals. It is perhaps this isolation that explains why it is overlooked, but also the appeal of the place once you get there.

Let’s take these two issues separately but first some clarification. What we call ‘Lake Prespa’ is, in truth, two lakes – technically they are Megali and Mikri Prespa, ‘Greater’ and ‘Lesser Prespa’, known together as Prespes. (British visitors usually refer to the site in the singular and I have deferred to that tradition.) The lake basin lies right at the edge of the country close to Greece’s borders with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia.

Getting there takes at least 3-4 hours driving from the nearest major airport (Thessaloniki) and until recently crossing into the other countries was fraught with difficulty. This is an issue because much of the basin is actually in the Republic of Macedonia and the larger of the two Prespa lakes is divided unevenly between all three countries. Only Lesser Prespa, which is much shallower than its neighbour and, at more than 50km2, less diminutive than its name suggests, is primarily in Greece. It is however the single richest spot for wetland birds in the national park.

Unfortunately, the final stretch of road to reach the place requires mounting a steep hill range via a series of lethal hairpin bends. By the time you negotiate the last stretch the whole excursion has acquired a sense of journeying to the end of the world. It is only when you round a final corner and see this high-altitude lake unfurl in quaking blue that you appreciate why you made the effort.

Prespa is astonishingly dramatic, not only because it is so vast, but also because it is ringed around by a towering amphitheatre of mountains. While the place is celebrated for its wildlife often you are just captivated by its changing moods: as the sun rises or sets, or as the clouds pass or if, like me, you go regularly, then as the seasons rotate. At all times it seems to shift before your eyes.

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here is Lesser Prespa in full morning glory in May

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Here it is again on a sultry September afternoon

Above all this place feels like really big country and just the sort of location to hold some of the biggest birds in Europe. A spot I love to launch any visit is a small limestone knoll called Krina that commands views over the whole reed swamp on Lesser Prespa’s northern shore. This is where the main colonies of waterbirds are located and in spring they are everywhere.

The small floating islands close to shore are packed tight with birds including the breeding Dalmatian pelicans. For once the news on this globally threatened species is extremely encouraging. Since the turn of the century the population estimate for the site has more than doubled, from 550 to 1200 pairs. Prespa is also one of the few places in Europe where this giant of a bird, with its three-metre-plus wingspan, breeds together with its even larger sibling the Great White Pelican (c350 pairs).

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the pink-breasted birds with orange or cherry-red face patches are white pelicans, while the greyer ones are Dalmatian pelicans

Direct comparison of the two is a commonplace part of pelican watching and the birds are also tame, often sitting on jetties or pottering among the boats moored at the lakeside villages such as Psarades. By late morning they also present a more graceful vision because they rise on thermals over the walls of the encircling mountains, spiraling outwards to feed across the lakes of northern Greece.

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Dalmatian pelican in full fig (note the extraordinary orange bill). The breeding dress develops very early since they can start breeding in February

The two pelicans may be among Prespa’s headline attractions, but everywhere you look at this site you are confronted with large waterbirds powering out to feed in all parts of the lakes. These include purple and grey herons, great cormorants, great and little egrets, and also a range of smaller birds that prefer the dense reed fringes, such as squacco herons, black-crowned night herons and little bitterns. These three are often elusive or scarce elsewhere, but at Prespa they are common and remarkably confiding. Two further attractions are both classified as near-threatened. They are ferruginous duck, which breeds in small numbers, and the range-restricted pygmy cormorant, which has a breeding colony of up to 700 pairs and is ubiquitous.

The northern Pindos mountains of Greece have experienced successive waves of human emigration in the last half century and this border area is now among the most depopulated parts in all Europe. It is the locale for an inadvertent rewilding experiment and now holds some of Europe’s best populations of brown bears and wolves, both of which pass through Prespa on a routine basis. But don’t hold your breath; they are remarkably elusive and friend and resident naturalist Julian Hoffman has seen them only twice in 15 years.

For all its remote wildness Prespa offers the possibility of irrigated agriculture in the basin and this has paved the way for an intensive form of bean farming.  As a result there are several substantial agricultural villages, including Agios Germanos, which is about 10 kilometres from the best wetland area. It is the prefect base for a visit, not only because it has great restaurants  but also because the birding around there and all the way through the agricultural hinterland almost to the lake shore offers great opportunities.

Four Dendrocopos – Syrian, great, middle and lesser spotted woodpeckers – are regulars in the town’s many orchards, while the fizz of singing black redstarts is constant, as is the chortling of red-rumped swallows or crag martins. Spring brings singing red-backed, lesser grey and woodchat shrikes to the farmland nearby, not to mention golden orioles, common nightingales and subalpine warblers.

Come autumn the wooded isthmus of land that separates the two lakes is a great spot for migrants. In September it can be thick with passing spotted flycatchers, willow warblers and hirundines, while large mixed ‘flava’ wagtail flocks muster and swirl across the fields like chaff raised in a breeze. The cliffs at the western edge of the spit also holds breeding Eurasian eagle owl, while the reedbeds in this area are often alive with bearded reedlings and penduline tits.

The whole stretch is always worthy of exploration for loafing pelicans and migrant waders but one place stands out at Prespa for its resident and migrant passerines. It is the tiny island of Aghios Achillios, once a capital for an ancient Bulgarian dynasty and now a tiny village of about a dozen stone cottages amid areas of cattle pasture and woodland. It is an exquisitely beautiful limestone promontory in the middle of Lesser Prespa and can be easily reached by the 700-metre pontoon bridge that now crosses the reed swamp from Krina.

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The view from Aghios Achillios hotel balcony in the evening with the lamps on the causeway glittering in the dark

For the more adventurous there is the most perfectly located hotel that offers great food and simple accommodation. Then at night you can ‘enjoy’ the extraordinary soundscape of this floating heaven. A powerful mixed chorus of great reed warblers and pond frogs overwhelms the darkness and is softened by the songs of  nightingales. It is bio-luxuriance for the ear.

In the morning, as the sun rises over the eastern mountains, Aghios Achillios is a glorious location in which to take in the whole of this huge international landscape. Squacco and purple herons and occasional glossy ibises can be found feeding at close range in the quiet bays by the hamlet. Yet all Prespa’s waterbirds are passing low overhead in a non-stop traffic, while the limestone meadows are thick with spring flowers. It reminds me strongly of my childhood and the Derbyshire dales, except that the morning dew often bears the plodding tracks of Hermann’s tortoises.

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Hermann’s tortoises are common on the island and elsewhere

If you are interested in more than just birds then I should mention that Prespa is fabulous for other groups, with at least 40 mammal species, 30 amphibians and reptiles and nine endemic fish. In fact the omnipresence of life in extraordinary abundance is the signature experience at this wetland.

Then there is the ever-changing light. Often it is enough to sit on Krina as the sun comes up and watch the water changing hue. For me it is one of the most magical locations in all Europe. That rogue of twentieth century American letters Henry Miller once wrote in his strongly recommended The Colossus of Maroussi:

‘Greece is not a small country – it is impressively vast. No country I have visited has given me such a sense of grandeur. Size is not created by mileage always. In a way which it is beyond the comprehension of my fellow countrymen to grasp Greece is infinitely larger than the United States. Greece could swallow both the United States and Europe. Greece is a little like China and India. It is a world of illusion.’

Sitting on Krina and soaking it all up, I have a sense of what Miller meant. Greece is truly a big country.

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Zagori – Greece’s wildest human landscape

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Beloi: perhaps the ultimate spot in Zagori, not just for the breathtaking views of the world’s deepest gorge, but also for its breeding wallcreepers and glorious flowers and butterflies en route

In 2016 I began a series of excursions to the Balkans, beginning in Serbia. In September of that year it led Maria and me to Zagori, an area of the northern Pindos mountains, which includes the Vikos Gorge (pictured above), in northern Greece. I first heard of it in the mid 1980s and was inspired by the descriptions, but it has taken 30 years to fulfil this quiet ambition. How I wish we had acted sooner!

After just two visits it has become a kind of spiritual touchstone, a refuge from the increasingly humanised landscapes of southern England, a way of gauging what has happened to my country, but also a means to explore some of the new ways of thinking about European landscapes, such as the concept of ‘rewilding’.

However let me introduce Zagori. It is essentially a unit of human geography and a political realm originating during the period of Ottoman rule, which lasted in northern Greece for almost 500 years from 1430 until 1913. The Turkish capital for the region was Ioannina, a city with which many Zagorians retain strong links, often with houses there and also in the mountain villages.  The original Christian communities of Zagori, including 46 villages (of which Dilofo, pictured below, is one) were able to negotiate preferential trade arrangements with their Ottomans overlords and retained a degree of religious and administrative autonomy while expanding trade opportunities, partly through the construction of multi-arched pack bridges to facilitate communication among themselves and more widely in Epirus.

These remarkable stone bridges are a major feature of the place, such as the famous triple-arched bridge near Kipi (above). In truth, everywhere one travels in this glorious river-and-mountain landscape – and it is now both the North Pindos National Park (founded in 2005), the largest in mainland Greece at 2000 km2, and the  Vikos-Aoos Geopark – one is struck as much by the beauty and grandeur of the

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human settlements as the power of their natural setting. The craftsmanship exhibited in the limestone construction of the architecture (such as this old school building in Dilofo, above), is a never-ending source of pleasure in Zagori. Below meanwhile is Mikra Papingo, lying beneath the resonantly named Towers of Astraka (in the lowest dip in the hillslope above the village is the Astraka Refuge, where we stayed in May 2017).IMG_7395The wealth on display in the size and construction of many village houses speaks of a distinctive historical pattern in Zagorian society. Local people, while firmly rooted in their montane commmunities, spent long periods overseas and especially in parts of the Ottoman empire, and as far away as the Crimea, Moscow, Egypt and India. Zagorians were famous for their multilingual abilities and they were skilled merchants and administrators and sent home a stream of remittance money that financed Zagori’s architecture and underpinned numerous regional charitable works. A good example of this is the Rizareios Centre in Monodendri, a nineteenth century foundation that still supports local culture and craft.

Today Zagori is famous mainly for its natural beauty. It is a memorable place for wildlife regardless of season and is especially rich botanically. The national park has about 1,900 species, almost a third of Greece’s total 6,000 vascular plants and the equivalent of all the plant diversity in the British Isles. Here is a tiny glimpse below.

 

Where there are flowers there are invariably butterflies and I found their abundance in May 2017 completely intoxicating. I think it is the sense of unrelieved joy engendered by natural abundance – and which is something I have cherished since childhood – that I prize so highly about Zagori. It is the element that gives me a feeling of having ‘come home’. Too often in Britain, especially today,  encounters in nature are routinely pleated with the sense of loss. There are great places in the UK but even in Scotland one is assailed by awareness of mismanagement or by the reflection that things could be so much better.

One of the most memorable Zagori walks we did this spring was down from the tiny village of Vikos to the bottom of the gorge proper. The entire route was a succession of flowering bushes and shrubs thronged with insects – butterflies mainly but also bush crickets, owl flies, day-flying moths and grasshoppers – and everywhere  submerged in birdsong – subalpine warblers, cirl buntings, blackbirds, tits, finches and hirundines. Filling the gorge at the bottom were the icy waters of the Voidomatis Spring, where we cooled off.

May be it is their very coldness or some mineral content in the waters where they gush out the Earth, but they have a luminescent bloom that adds silver into the greens and turquoises of the river’s flow. The dryad and naiad-haunted tranquillity of the spot inspired the Greeks to establish a small shrine where  intact hand-painted frescoes can still be enjoyed. Above us in the shrine’s perpetual gloom were horseshoe bats. Outside in the shadows were singing nightingales. Here is a taste of it all (please click on the images to enlarge them and see the separate captions)

 

 

There is a further element in Zagori, aside from its glorious wildlife, sublime landscapes and complex human story, that makes the place so compelling. It is one of the least populated parts of Europe and human presence is shrinking. Here is how it has changed, with the historical populations for Zagori followed by the dates in brackets: 27,750 (1812), 28,135 (1874), 22,820 (1902), 9,446 (1961), 6,357 (1991), <1,000 (2017).

Many villages now are almost entirely deserted except at holiday times. We visited the beautiful settlement of Kato Pedina – just to the west of Vikos Gorge – which lies near one of the few large areas of open arable land. It has only 3-4 occupied houses in winter. We have had so many conversations with ex-patriate Zagorians, some making pilgrimage ‘home’ from Athens, and we asked them what they thought about ‘nature’. So often they found the changes, particularly the expansion of woodland, ‘scary’. Look at any old photographs of this landscape and then go and look at the same scene today. You can witness for yourself the forest’s inexorable encroachment. Zagori was, it still is, famous for its Vlach and Sarakatsani transhumant communities, but grazing pressure and livestock numbers are falling.

These changes are having a profound effect on many of the key natural communities for which Zagori is so special. Flowers, butterflies and birds such as red-backed shrike are all retreating before the spread of new woodlands. So often I found both density and variety of the birds greatest around the villages, rather than in the thick of the woods. Almost every area of pasture above villages such as Monodendri, has young suckering tree growth or saplings appearing at the edges of the woods or spreading out of the hedges. The afforestation is graphically illustrated by this old picture of the Vikos Gorge taken in the 1940s at Beloi, which offers one of the great panoramas in all Europe. Compare this image with the one I opened my post with (click to enlarge)

Greek friends, who are Zagorian residents and professional ecologists, spelled out some of the consequences of this process. Wild boar populations have massively increased as the tree cover expands and this, in turn, has led to increases in wolves and bears. It is not possible to find bee hives in the area that are not encircled by electric fences. One consequence of  the increases in some mammal predators has been the widespread use of poison baits. This has had dramatic negative effects on vultures and large birds of prey. As one ecologist friend announced to us: ‘What is so special about wolves’.

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Here is a huge male boar, whose balls were sliced off and fed to the hound in the box at the back of the pick-up

What he means is, why should we privilege one climax predator above the rest of an entire ecosystem whose ‘wildness’ and diversity is dependent upon humans and their management of grazing livestock? I stress that he is not a hunter or a shepherd; he is a modern sophisticated UK-educated ecologist with a passion for both Zagori’s wildlife and a deep love for the relationships between people and place in his home region.

Zagori raises fascinating questions. It is one of the most special parts of Europe that I have seen. It is now a fixture in our lives. I could not recommend a visit more highly.  If you would like to come with me, then watch this space!

Recreating Extremadura

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The ‘dehesa’ woodlands of Extremadura stretch to the very limits of ones vision and are a wonderful paradox:  handcrafted wilderness (photo © Martin Kelsey)

Last week in Extremadura in south-west Spain I finally resolved a conundrum I’ve been pondering for almost ten years.

I taught nature writing for the first time in 2007 and since then have been dogged by a  question: how do you combine the inspiration from nature with its conversion to words? So often places where you can teach have restricted access to experiences that are truly affecting. On the other hand you can find great wild places, but there’s nowhere to sit and reflect on how to describe them. I’ve taken the same puzzle  with me to teaching centres in central Wales, Devon, south Yorkshire, the highlands of Scotland and  Norfolk. Finally with a week-long course entitled Recreating Extremadura I feel that I’ve solved the problem.

I’ve been working on it since 2014 with my old friend, Martin  Kelsey of Casa Rural el Recuerdo. On a balmy Sunday afternoon in November he met our pioneer group, many of them now friends also, amid Madrid’s gloriously bleached winter sunshine. Then we drove to his home near Trujillo.

There were nine in total and the aim was to envelop a three-day writing course within the overwhelming sense of natural abundance that is the signature experience in this landscape. It was apparent even as we barreled along the motorway. Every few minutes there were red kites, vultures, harriers and buzzards while a Spanish imperial eagle swept directly over the vehicle but managed , alas, to avoid eye-contact with several of us.

The following day we took in the full range of landscape forms in this region, including  Monfragüe NP. This was the first of two full-day excursions  book-ending the course and providing word fuel and inspiring memories for our central time indoors, . We were soon among the dehesa woodlands that are visible almost to the horizon at every point of the compass, but especially from the Castillo at Monfragüe near Peña Falcon.

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There are c300 breeding pairs of griffon vulture on peña falcon and rising. They are so  graceful and endlessly changing – like incoming waves on the shore or flames in the hearth- that one feels impelled to go on watching.

Vultures swept over and around us wherever we looked in numbers you now can now scarcely find either in India or Africa. And here for good measure – forgive the image quality –  is a little bit of moving footage.

We rounded the day off amid an even richer sense of abundance at the rice paddies of Madrigalego just a little south of Casa Rural el Recuerdo. This is intensive agriculture at it most puzzling. Vast areas of chemically drenched rice, highly mechanised farming with a little (illegal?) stubble burning on the side, yet this landscape holds immense numbers of waterbirds or sparrow flocks on every side. It is extraordinary. The highlight is undoubtedly the opportunity to see wintering cranes as they come to roost.

This scene was an intended canvas on which we could develop our own writing exercises. So in midweek, after a further day and a half of exercises and of thinking about the work of others (eg Mary Austen, Annie Dillard, Norman Lewis, Cormac McCarthy, Gavin Maxwell and Katrina Porteous) we returned to Madrigalejo to remind ourselves of its details. We stayed until sunset when the cranes, harriers, sparrows and egrets were all gathering for the night. It was wonderfully atmospheric. Nothing really conveys it, but here’s some  moving footage of the cranes that indicates how these birds in large congregations are an all-embracing encounter: a matter of smell, sight and hearing. We spent a lot of time trying to capture the exact quality of their calls but, like many natural sounds, I think it eluded us.

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With large congregations of large birds it is the incessant motion and renewal of scene that I find so captivating. At all times one is impelled  to watch in order not to miss how their random order will continue to unfold.

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Swirling globes involving hundreds, if not thousands of sparrows (and above they are Spanish sparrows) is a tableau one can longer enjoy in the UK

 

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Even the Dantesque smoke billowing off the marsh inspired some of the group including Angela and Fiona.

My own favourite of Extremadura’s key landscapes is technically known as pseudo-steppe,  expanses of grassland interspersed with patches of low-intensity arable, which I have written about at the conclusion of my book Birders. I never tire of the exquisite light, the continental vastness of it, as well as the subtler and more detailed intimacies – the upper vault of larksong, the banks of flowers at your feet, or the momentarily spiralling  birds of prey.

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The snow-capped Gredos mountains are about 100km away but are omnipresent features of many Extremaduran places.

One of our exercises involved trying to use the inspiration of music to explore how the internal rhythms of language can capture or, at least, help to convey the qualities of nature. It provoked some great results from Angela and Karen while Jez later produced a short passage that was a perfect reenactment of a fox hunting craneflies that he had witnessed elsewhere.

Our work wasn’t all straightforward. We suffered the interruptions of celebrity when Angelique of the regional Extremaduran television company came to see what the crazy  British were about. Here is Fiona explaining the fascination of nature and writing.IMG_7905.jpg

And here for good measure is the complete group.

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Here is the full group (L-R: Fiona, Karen, Jerry, Karen, Jez [kneeling], Martin, MC and Angela) during our afternoon visit to Trujillo, which is a great spot for medieval architecture and rock-loving plants

 So why was it so much more satisfying to talk about nature writing in Extremadura than anywhere else?

I guess this little montage of images spells out much of the appeal. It was not just the fact that the middays were warm and sunlit (or the nights crisp and starlit) so that we could often do our lessons outdoors around Casa Rural’s lovely granite table and bench; nor was it simply the drama of much of the wildlife, including the vultures and cranes; nor was it the constant surprises, the hoopoes as we took lunch, the tiny viperine snakelet across our path; nor the omnipresent vibrancy of the evergreen trees – the dehesa oaks, the olive groves, the wayside pistachios or strawberry trees (with the red fruits). It is the fact that you are enfolded in a sense of abundance that can be replicated in very few parts of Britain today. Extremadura is still a landscape where people and place are intimately connected. It works for them; they work in and with nature. No wonder I’ve been going back for 35 years. Now I’m looking forward to the next time.

Anyone interested in joining our next ‘Recreating Extremadura’ course should click here.