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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strange Nest Behaviour of European Stone Curlews

This is the not the best selection of European Stone-Curlew images but I thought the birds’ behaviour sufficiently unusual to post them and see if anyone can shed light on it.

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We were driving alongside a peach grove on the Judaean Plain in central Israel when two stone-curlews suddenly appeared walking away from the vehicle. One of the birds then trotted back through the trees to a spot just by a peach stump and genuflected its thick knees and I immediately assumed it was a nest, where she may well resume brooding.

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Instead of that, however, she stabbed down (as I now know to puncture the egg; see above) and resumed an upright posture with the egg fixed in her bill tip, holding it only by its lower end. It was an oddly plain and pale egg for this species with patterning concentrated at the top end, but of a size and colour to match stone-curlew.

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Then the bird trotted off back the way it had come with yolk and clear white apparently spilling out of the hole. It then dropped it and stabbed it until there was a large hole all along one side (see top pic, where it is just visible at the front of the egg)

Pandemonium broke out in our car as we tried to get images. We left the birds one behind the other with what was assumed to be the female standing over a punctured stone-curlew egg. But what was happening here? Had we disturbed them close to a recently laid egg and she had therefore destroyed her own egg? Apparently stone-curlews are highly site faithful and return year in, year out to the same spot. It seems unlikely that another stone-curlew pair had laid in their territory and she was destroying the nest of usurpers. But some nests do contain eggs from multiple females.

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Was it therefore an old egg in the old nest that she was simply getting rid of in preparation for a re-nest? They apparently lay in April. A single egg is the common clutch size but we didn’t want to go and see if there were other eggs in the nest. There was little sense that this was an old addled egg. The white ran clear when it dribbled out the crack. Apologies that the images are not brilliant and the information is sketchy but if anyone can shed any light I would be fascinated to hear.

Bitterness and Blossoms – Lawrence Durrell’s Cyprus

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Strange to reflect that there was a period in the seventies, when a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was obligatory on every student’s bookshelf. Now he seems as passé an emblem of the era as that poster of the female tennis player scratching her fulsome bare cheek.

I recently introduced a passage from Reflections on a Marine Venus to a writing group and was highly embarrassed as they analysed its multiple deficiencies to oblivion. How could I not have seen them? The lushness of colour, the elaborate, sometimes creaking imagery –’In the fragile membranes of light which separate like yolks upon the cold meniscus of the sea’ – and the metaphors piled on top of one another and so little substance to underpin them. The truth is I think I have always seen them and always forgiven them

They are  the kinds of failings intrinsic to a writer with undeniably acute powers of observation, yet one given to writing very quickly. Apparently 4,000 words a day was by no means exceptional for Durrell. And I still maintain that even Reflections, an account of his post-war period on Rhodes, contains some truly wonderful writing and superb characterisation. I also think that the trilogy on Greek islands – Prospero’s Cell (1945), Reflections (1953) and Bitter Lemons (1957) – stands the test of time. All three are still in print and by Mark Twain’s measure of literary immortality (‘about thirty-five years’) Durrell’s trio are classics indeed.

During a visit to Northern Cyprus earlier this month Maria and I were able to make pilgrimage to the central locus for what is unquestionably the finest of them, Bitter Lemons. Bellapaix is just a short drive to the east and slightly landward from the port of Kyrenia.

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(HERE’S MARIA OUTSIDE THE HOUSE THAT WAS BUILT IN 1897 AND WHICH DURRELL BOUGHT IN 1953 for £200. HIS DESCRIPTION OF ITS PURCHASE IS ONE OF THE GREAT COMIC MOMENTS OF THE BOOK. THE VIEWS FROM ITS UPPER BALCONY ARE SUBLIME: ‘FROM THIS HIGH POINT WE WERE ACTUALLY LOOKING DOWN UPON BELLAPAIX, AND BEYOND IT, FIVE MILES AWAY, UPON KYRENIA WHOSE CASTLE LOOKED ABSURDLY LIKE A TOY.‘)

Today the village makes much of Durrell. The local cafe overlooking the Abbey of Bellapaix is called the ‘Tree of Idleness’, which is a name for one of his chapters. There was apparently a real tree (unusual for Durrell, he never identified the species but I guess it would have been a plane), whose cool-spreading foliage was the location for many of the book’s reported conversations.

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(‘AND THE ABBEY ITSELF WAS THERE, FADING IN THE LAST MAGNETIC FLUSH FROM THE HORIZON, WITH ITS QUIET GROUPS OF COFFEE-DRINKERS AND CARD PLAYERS UNDER THE TREE OF IDLENESS. AT FULL MOON WE DINED THERE, BAREFOOTED ON THE DARK GRASS, TO WATCH THE LIGHTS WINKING AWAY ALONG THE FRETTED COAST …’)

In the way that life often imitates art, the road on which Durrell’s old house stands is now called Aci Limon Sokak, ‘Bitter Lemon Street’. When its current occupants are in town they apparently open it to the public and give Durrell-inflected presentations. It is a lovely looking property, although it was not actually where he wrote Bitter Lemons (I learn from his volume of diary and occasional writings called Spirit of Place), he completed it during a brief stay in Dorset. But he did write Justine in Bellapaix, the first of the Alexandria Quartet. He would rise pre-dawn, so he said, to get the words down before the day came crowding in; then he would set off over the Kyrenia Range to teach in Nicosia.

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(MY HERO FOR THE TRIP WAS THIS CYPRESS, NEAR TO BUFFAVENTO IN THE KYRENIA RANGE, WHICH HAD PROBABLY BEEN GROWING IN THIS EXTRAORDINARY POSITION SINCE BEFORE DURRELL EVER SET EYES ON THE ISLAND. ITS DAILY VIEW INCLUDES TURKEY AND THE WHOLE OF KYRENIA. THINK WHAT CHANGES IT MUST HAVE SEEN.)

Bitter Lemons is no longer a meaningful guide to the physical characteristics of Cypriot life, given that community has been so terribly mauled by civil war and now entirely seperated along ethnic lines. The Greeks are all in the south and the Turks in the north. The quaintness of their backwater existence has also been further deluged by a tsunami of tourist development. Apparently it is far more pronounced on the Greek side.

(ONE OF THE SAVING GRACES OF THE ENTIRE MEDITERRANEAN LANDSCAPE IS THE PREVALENCE OF TREE CROPS. ALTHOUGH CHEMICALS ARE OFTEN NOW USED TO CONTROL THE SURROUNDING VEGETATION, THE TREES ARE A GLORIOUS HABITAT IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. AND OFTEN CHEMICALS ARE NOT USED AND THE GROUND AROUND THEM IS THEN A FLOWER-RICH PARKLAND. I WAS MESMERISED BY THE SLOW-GROWING ANCIENTNESS OF SOME OLIVES. THIS ONE [ABOVE LEFT] WAS PROBABLY AROUND 400-500 YEARS OLD JUDGING BY THE GROWTH RINGS ON JUST ONE SMALL SIDE BRANCH.)

Yet two things resonated deeply on re-reading the book. One, which I had completely overlooked previously, is Durrell’s loving attention to the flowers and trees on Cyprus. (But then how could I not have noticed it? It is, after all, called Bitter Lemons!) We were there during December yet the vegetation was still a powerful part of our own experience.

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(MY FAVOURITE TREES WERE PROBABLY THE CAROBS, WHICH HAVE A TENDENCY TO HAVE TWO PRIMARY TRUNKS (POLLARDS PERHAPS?) THAT GROW OUT AND TOPPLE OVER ONLY TO REROOT AND CONTINUE GROWING. THEIR DENSE SHADE WAS IDEAL FOR ROOSTING LITTLE OWLS AND THE CYPRIOT TURKS GATHER THE PODS, ONCE KNOW AS ST JOHN’S BREAD, FROM WHICH THEY MAKE A STRANGE BITTER-SWEET JUICE [PEKMEZI] WHICH THEY HAVE FOR BREAKFAST WITH TAHINI AND CABBAGE. I MUST CONFESS IT REMINDS ME OF MARMITE. THIS INDIVIDUAL, ON THE KARPAS PENINSULA IS REALLY OLD AND HAS PROBABLY BEEN PRODUCING A CROP SINCE THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.)

The second element, which seems such a contradiction of the first, was Durrell’s ability to summon the sheer nihilism of terrorism. It is almost as if he had written the book with our own times in mind. Inter-ethnic strife, war without boundaries or limits, Muslims and Christians – you begin to see how Bitter Lemons speaks so powerfully to our own age. Here, however, the terrorists are all Greek and their victims are either those Cypriots who had collaborated with the island’s political masters, or they are the English overlords themselves. In fact, Durrell’s own life was eventually threatened.

The one false note in the book is Durrell’s half-hearted attempt to dodge the injustice of colonialism. His defence of the imperial government, particularly its governor-general John Harding, seems odd from a writer whose entire oeuvre derived so much from its antagonism to the narrowness and cold-hearted smugness of English public life. Yet, in Bitter Lemons he looks rather reactionary.

In a way, Durrell resolves the dilemma by viewing the politics from the perspective of his Cypriot friends and by stressing the impacts of public terror on private lives, those of his friends and his neighbours. And this is where those flowers and trees start to carry significance.

Botanical imagery is recurrent throughout the book and is most evident in Durrell’s comedic portraits of local Cypriot life or the tavern camaraderie of Bellapaix, but especially in his account of a Greek friend Panos, a schoolteacher from Nicosia. ‘In his memory’, Durrell notes of this tender-hearted scholar and naturalist, ‘he carried a living flower-map of the range, and he knew where best to go for his anemones and cyclamens, his ranunculuses and marigolds. Nor was he ever wrong.’

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(DECEMBER WAS NOT A MONTH TO SEE CYPRIOTS FLOWERS AT THEIR BEST BUT WE DID FIND THESE VERY EARLY NARCISSUS. RICHARD MABEY IDENTIFIED THEM AS N. TAZETTA.)

The final fifth of the book is taken up with Durrell’s description of an outing with Panos. It is, in many ways, very typical of the leisure-filled, carefree, pleasure-loving spirit that pervades all the travel writing by Lawrence Durrell. The two men go to inspect a friend’s garden. They have a picnic. They drink wine and smoke cigarettes and savour the very airs of spring: ‘this spring breeze which … am I imagining it?’ says Panos, ‘tastes of lemons, of lemon-blossom.’

Later they collect great basketfuls of flowers and when they are stopped at an army roadblock, Panos is confronted by a young English squady, whose red beret is notably described as ‘gleaming like a cherry among the silver olives.’ The private happens to pass comment on the great pannier of blossoms in the back of Durrell’s car and with that Panos immediately hands him ‘several great bunches of Klepini anemones’.

He made a vague gesture of handing them back, saying: ‘I’m on duty now, sir,’ but I had already let in the clutch and we were rolling down among the trees to the village, leaving him alone with his problem and the smiles of his companions.

There, in a way, you have the whole book: a gift of flowers as a small kindness between people of different race; but flowers also as emblems of the generosity of spirit from which flows all human friendship; and flowers, finally, as the absolute inverse of war. Flowers, as they always have been, are the blessings of peace in Bitter Lemons. All of this has been made so much more poignant and affecting, because right at the start of the chapter, Durrell has already told us that Panos was shot dead by terrorists as he walked out one evening in the town. We are allowed to observe the beauty of his soul, the beauty of his flowers too, from the perspective of his senseless murder.

It is a consummate, masterly piece of controlled writing. It says so much more about the failure of humankind when it resorts to terror than anything written by one of the modern immortals like, say, Martin Amis. It is why I love Durrell’s work. It’s why he is still in print despite that loss of popular acclaim.

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There is one brief personal postcript to this post: It was Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons that gave me the title for one of my earliest books. In the first chapter he wrote: ‘We had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time – those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.’ For me the claim still holds absolutely true about all travel and all travel writing.

Wasps and Spiders – a trial of toxins

Today I published a short piece in the Guardian about my sightings of wasps and spiders duelling and preying off one another. However I had more extraordinary encounters this weekend while meadow making at Blackwater. I thought it worth some extra words. But the first thing to say is that both carry toxins that would be lethal for the other: a wasp sting on a spider would surely be fatal, just as a spider bite can clearly kill a wasp.

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Even so, I was surprised to find a wasp stealing prey out of an active spider’s web (belonging to a garden cross spider). While continuing to fly (albeit in rather static hovering mode) the insect pulled the desiccated spider prey out the centre of the web, tugging the mashed protein until the spider’s silk attaching it to the web snapped. It would be interesting to know if this wasp worker had developed this kleptoparasitic practice serially, stealing from one web after another? Either way it was apparent that the spider was taking no chances and dropped clean out of its own web onto vegetation below. But the wasp’s behaviour is also high risk, as I learnt later.

The next sighting (the one I described in the paper) is here below. The wasp was already enmeshed, its aristocratic jawline and those sad black oval eyes looking extremely melancholy from behind their veil of spider silk. My article was largely about the tiny little male spider that tried to take advantage of the female’s recent catch to sneak in to mate.  IMG_5113Here he is making his move, but she was having none of it and would have eaten him i suspect if he had not been nimble.

IMG_5118 copyThe sighting that was most riveting is partly illustrated in the picture at the very top. It shows a beautiful female marble orb weaver that had just caught the wasp as I chanced upon it at Blackwater. Go back to the picture (it should enlarge if you click on it) and you can see her first moves to tackle the wasp. She approached it all from below, well away from that lethal abdominal sting. One wonders if she’d ever encountered a wasp before and how she ‘knew’ how to manipulate it. But her first goal was to immobilise the wings and head/thorax. Then, when these were tightly bound, she worked carefully around the wasp’s abdomen and firing silk from her rear spinnerets she soon had it much as you see the garden cross had got hers – entirely bound like brisket in tight silk. Even so, the wasp at this stage was very much live. I could see its abdomen still pumping vigorously.

The next part was the most remarkable. The spider moved in and i could see the exposed needle-like jaws opening wide as it injected venom into the insect. Often spiders drag large prey up to a shelter which is invariably to one side of the orb web. A leaf or a grass stem forms the A frame to a kind if silked-over tent, where the arachnid can feed unobserved. But this spider, rather than using its legs directly to move the wasp into place, pulled it up on a long strand of silk, thereby keeping the wasp at all times a safe distance from itself. Even when it had got into position in the shelter it left the wasp dangling like a load on a rope pulley a few centimetres below itself, presumably giving the injected poison time to work. Then it finally hauled the wasp in tight and started to feed.

The interesting and mystifying part for me is how the spider ‘knew’ how to work this particularly risky type of food. It may have met wasps before but spiders are quite short lived. My guess is it is not relying on previous experience to guide it. How has it acquired the ‘knowledge’ to avoid the dangerous rear end of a wasp? The aposematic warning colours – yellow and black – of the wasp are surely a helpful cue to the spider that it is dealing with something unsafe, but how did it ‘know’ that keeping the trussed-up insect on a long leash as it climbed to its shelter spot was advisable. My guess is it is all instinctual. Nothing is processed in our sense of ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’. The creature has inherited behaviours from generations of successful spiders, going back millions of years, and this ancient, genetically programmed suite of reactions builds into an ‘operation template’ that allows it to catch and overcome something as potentially poisonous as itself.

‘It’s a strange world Sandy!’ as Kyle MacLachan said to Laura Dern in the film Blue Velvet.

Meadow Making II (on top of Slub Mountain)

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One of the fascinating things about managing any patch of ground is learning to envision it ecologically: conjuring it not as it looks at any one time but as it will be at all stages. Meadow-making is thus an act of imagination and of faith. My particular hope is that the scene you can see below (the first image was taken on 30 November, the second in May this year) will slowly evolve into a lower, shorter (and more manageable) sward richer in meadow plants. See also Meadow Making for the backstory to all this.

My ally in the business was yellow rattle, whose papery seeds I bought in 100-gm packet.


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03 05:05:14 01I spread most of them on about a third of an acre after rigorously mowing it with our small petrol lawnmower in autumn. The recommended date is August-September but mine was delayed and some was not cast until December. It seemed to make little difference and even the late-sown seed produced a fabulous abundance of flowering plants come the late spring, possibly with the second cast flowering slightly later.  Here it is in its pomp in June, but I cannot tell you how exciting it was to spot the first tell-tale yellow rattle leaves coming up in late March.

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The image above is the first indicator that my meadow making plan is bearing flower and fruit. When i bought the site in 2012 there was no ragged robin at Blackwater at all. Now it is springing up everywhere (the pink flower above), along with marsh thistles (there was none when I got the site), lady’s-smock and this summer, for the first time ever, common fleabane. All these new plants are fulfilling the original ambition, which was to create a site with abundant flowers from March/April until about now (late September). In my first spring I had an early flourish, especially of sallow blossom and white dead nettle, and then there was a long hiatus until the meadowsweet and purple loosestrife started in July. Already I can see how the spring ‘colour hole’ is being filled with all sorts of nectar-bearing plants. It means that bumblebees and other wonderful insects are now present spring and summer-long with a superb abundance in August and my first recorded nests – both tree bumblebees, one in my haystack (see below) and one in a hollow tree stump.

Each year has been totally different, not just with new things suddenly appearing but with commonplace residents  showing themselves in unexpected abundance. Last year was wonderful for hoverflies but for some reason this summer  they seem to have been much more scarce.  However I have had a glorious flourish of angelica, the queen of all umbellifers as far as insects are concerned. But it is also such a sculptural beast and the way it breaks out of that huge bulbous egg of green to throw out those wide white-pink arms to the sun – it behaves like an animal. I love it.

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Some wonderful additions to the site, appearing for the first time this summer and singing to me yesterday as I scythed one of the last patches of tall herb, were long-winged coneheads (male, below left). I’ve long had dark bush crickets (right) and they are wonderful too but the conehead records have been special. Their sound is a really soft fragile susurration like an old foot-driven sewing machine but in a far room. I was crouching low to hear this tiny hiss better and realised that the beast was stridulating just near my foot. Remarkable to reflect that this species had not been recorded in Norfolk at all until 2000 and it was only recorded for the first time in Britain in 1931. Nice climate change indicator!

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Meadow making may sound like a walk through the flowers but it isn’t all contemplation of wonder and beauty. There’s hard graft too. This year my wonderful brother Andy came down to help. I have previously had support from the Hawk & Owl Trust but they are only available in the early winter and really I want to intervene in the tall-herb succession by cutting at an earlier date. So we started work in August. In truth it was so hot that we were only able to work some of the time. But we were blessed with a secret weapon in one of Simon Fairlie’s Austrian scythes, which i borrowed from a friend. I have an old English brute of a scythe (vintage 1948) with a heavy beech handlle given to me by my lovely 90-yr-old farmer neighbour John. The Austrian snath is light pine  and the blade itself finer, sharper and lighter. The whole scythe is twice as efficient and half the effort. Here’s Andy midway through cutting the main yellow rattle patch. We assembled all our cutting on two haystacks. Eventually we needed a ladder to climb to the top of either, because they were twelve feet high.

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You have no idea what effort it took to capture the selfie below. The camera was perched on top of a ladder and i had to run in the intervening ten seconds, grab my brother’s rake, which he used to pull me up to the top of the stack. Our combined age is 114 going on 23!

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And here I am yesterday on top of what is known in our house as ‘Slub Mountain’ after I had finally cleared three-quarters of the meadow. Just one last cut to go. Any takers? ps I now have my own wonderful Simon Fairlie scythe!IMG_5188

A new Writing and Wildlife holiday in Spain’s Extremadura, Jan-Feb 2016

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It seems part of our age that all human experience can be reduced to a league table, so I’m proposing a thought-experiment. How about a list of favourite European landscapes? I wouldn’t like to second-guess all the candidates for top slot, but I’ll suggest my own choice. I’ve visited the dehesas of Extremadura in south-western Spain and eastern Portugal about 15 times, but a recent trip was the first occasion I’d seen it in late winter. Even without those astonishing carpets of wild flowers that are such a feature of the spring, the landscape seemed as full of vibrant beauty – and birds – as on every other trip.

If you’ve never seen Extremadura’s dehesa then you still have one of the great moments of your life before you. When I first set eyes on it almost exactly 35 years ago to the day I was mesmerised not just by the flowing contours of the plains but also the mathematical precision with which unseen Spanish hands had spaced out an endless ‘forest’ of evergreen oaks. Each individual tree is laid out in identical manner. The top is reduced to four main branches spreading to the four points of the compass. The sum effect of the regime is that every tree looks like a green umbrella. Replicate it a million times and you have a sense of one of Europe’s ultimate wildlife landscapes.

One intriguing sidelight on dehesa is the trouble we have in classifying exactly what kind of landscape it is. It’s often thought of as a type of park woodland but just as often it is treated as savanna or steppe ‘with trees’. These taxonomic difficulties may well reflect our modern concern that landscapes should be a single entity rather than two, or even three simultaneously. What is indisputable is dehesa’s extraordinary richness for birds.

At any one moment almost anywhere in Extremadura the sky is full of raptors. Hundreds of birds of at least ten species are barely even noteworthy. In fact there are often so many vultures over what can seem like acacia savanna that it feels more like tropical Africa than temperate Europe.

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One of its main features is the presence of Cinereous Vultures (above; also known as Black Vulture) in densities found nowhere else on Earth. Even better, the population of this once threatened bird has surged in recent decades. When I first visited there were 90 pairs; today there are ten times that number. The other headline species – if one sets aside for a moment its Great and Little Bustards – is its totem raptor, Spanish Imperial Eagle. Half a century ago this qualified as one of the world’s rarest birds of prey, with just 30 pairs left anywhere. Now there are 50 pairs in Extremadura alone. (Picture below: these two giants – the largest flighted bird in the world – are Great Bustards)

Great Bustard John Hawkins

What makes dehesa so deeply fulfilling is not the rarities, marvellous those these are, it is the commonplace birds and their sheer abundance. Features that we have forgotten or lost from Britain, such as massive flocks of sparrows and larks, are still embedded in this glorious farmland. One moment during the last visit that gave me huge pleasure was a stop by a feedlot. There was a dense, endlessly recycling mixed flock of Spotless Starlings, Corn Buntings, sparrows, larks and finches. It fizzed with ordinary life and therein lay the joy of it.

Yet what seals dehesa as the ultimate habitat is that this is not some carefully preserved national park barricaded behind a fortress of acronyms and official designations. It’s a working landscape and as devoted to human products as the worst arable monoculture. In fact, dehesa yields six principal harvests. It is cattle or sheep pasture as well as cropland and a source of charcoal or firewood. Its key speciality results from those billions of acorns, which fatten the region’s breed of black pigs. It is their exquisite hams and smoked meats that are savoured by all Iberian people. Finally the cork oaks produce that bottle stopper which makes the wonderful sound when the bottle of Spanish Rioja is first opened.

Dehesa is more than a bird- habitat. It is a hope-filled model of what human land-use can be: a gloriously creative transaction between ourselves and nature. Next year I am, together with Martin and Claudia Kelsey of the lovely Casa Rural el Recuerdo (near Trujillo), running a week-long nature and writing course from Sunday 31 January – Saturday 6 February 2016. It promises to be very special. At last I can be involved in a course where we can not only talk about nature but can be in daily contact with some of the most extraordinary wildlife in Europe. Among the things we will look for are the huge flocks on Common Cranes (pictured below) that pass the winter in Extremadura’s rice fields.

Cranes and dehesa Martin Kelsey

There’s more about the course under the Talks and Teaching section of my website. I hope to see you.

All images courtesy of Martin Kelsey