Thursday, April 18, 2019

Exploring Extremadura: Day 5 - Steppe Winds

I had an early start on day 5 of the trip as it would be my turn to try for Little Bustard and I would be taken to the hide in the dark. While getting ready at the hotel I decided to step out onto the balcony and there was a strong, cold wind blowing. It felt more like the UK than Spain and given the forthcoming immobility in the hide decided on a double fleece layer. This was to prove a good decision as it turned out to be very cool later in the hide.

After a short drive and a short walk across grassland in the pitch black, I was in the hide. The hide was very small and once again I was locked in for the duration.

It was an odd feeling being inside surrounded by pitch black with the only sound being  the relentless wind. Slowly it began to lighten and slowly I could start to make out some vague shapes and textures in the surroundings. The light increased further as dawn gathered pace and I could now thankfully see I was in a different hide to the one Steve had been in the preceding day. To my left was an area of flowering grassland while in front of the longer grass to the right, a small area had been cut short.

I waited for the light to improve and could start to just hear, through the wind,  the birds of this Spanish steppe starting to call. I was listening for a particular short clicking call which would signal the presence of Little Bustard. All was quiet and the hide was cold.

The light was now good with the rising sun and while I waited the camera was put to its first use of the day when a Crested Lark briefly alighted on a nearby close boulder.

I heard the noise I had been waiting for off to my right within the flowering grassland. Someone in there was a Little Bustard and it took a while before I managed to see the bird. A brief but fairly distance glimpse of its head and dark black neck poking above the long-vegetation. The next call was much closer and eventually a small turkey-like bird stepped into view.

This was my first view of Little Bustard and it slowly moved around while throwing its head back on its black and white banded neck to make its distinctive call.

To give an idea of the bird and its call I made a short video clip. As you can see the wind continued to blow Well

Little Bustard in Spain from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

One interesting part of Little Bustard behaviour is the males in the breeding display do small jumps into the air, above the long grasses, to advertise their presence. I was hoping to capture this behaviour but this male had other ideas and only jumped once during my whole visit. Fortunately it did this jump in a nice setting and I managed to capture a single image which was good as it took me completely by surprise.

Another photographer who was further down the valley in another hide had a male jumping around in front of his hide like it was tied to a pogo stick in front of his hide.

Given the lack of display leaping I had to make do with portrait images as the bird strutted around its territory,

At one time the bird came up right next to the hide. Interesting to see the bird at really close quarters as sat quietly in the small freezing cube. After a while the bird skulked back into the long vegetation to the left.

It was great to see the bird and a memorable experience.  A shame I did not get to see more of the display hops but it had been a much better session than Steve's disaster with the long vegetation the previous day. Steve over in the Hoopoe hide had done well and I was pleased the Turtle Dove had put in an appearance for him.

I welcomed the arrival of the car to collect me in the late morning as by this point I was freezing cold from the biting wind and lack of movement and very uncomfortable having been stuck in a very small hide for a prolonged period.

After lunch we took a drive round some local farm tracks in the car but all the birds seemed to be lying low in the strong cold winds. After a couple of hours of fruitless effort we decided to give up and call it a day.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Exploring Extremadura: Day 4 - Hoopoes and Wind

Steve and I were going in separate directions very early in the morning on the 4th day. He was heading off to try Little Bustard, more of that later in this post, and I was booked in for a session with some Hoopoe. I was met by a brisk and surprisingly cold wind as I stepped out of the hotel to be whisked off to the Hoopoe hide. Steve was already long since departed to get into his hide during darkness.

Once more I was locked into a small wooden hide which was setup behind some old derelict farm buildings. Looking out front and there was an area of grassland with well spaced trees, with the nearest tree having an obvious perched wedged into its base, just below a hole where the birds were nesting. An overcast sky only providing some fairly 'flat' light.  The general limited activity suggested the female, which only made one brief appearance for a stretch during my time in the hide, was still sitting on eggs in the base of tree.

The male bird was out foraging and would occasionally return with a small grub to pass into the unseen female.

The low frequency of visits made attempting any flight shots impractical. The light did improve towards the end of the session but rapidly became side-lit at that point.  Having taken a few photographs of the male bird on the single perch there was not much else to do. Before me was certainly not a very imaginative setup conducive to obtaining a variety of images.

As some you will know I am not the greatest fan of the fixed hides particularly when little thought has been put into the setup in front of it greatly limiting photograph opportunities. With this hide it was obvious after the first 30 minutes I was not going to get any different images to those already on the memory card.

The increasing frustration with the setup as time passed was broken by the welcome arrival of a Turtle Dove. This was the first one of these beautiful birds that had ever been seen from this hide and was only present briefly on the solitary perch.

After around 4 hours in the hide the sound of an approaching vehicle to collect me was a welcome one. It had not been one of the most enjoyable hide sessions.

I sent Steve a text to give him an update. It seemed that it wasn't going to well at his end. He had to walk out to a tiny hide in the middle of huge field in darkness. As the light dawned he realised he was surrounded by 0.75m high grass waving in the stiff cold breeze. The only view he got of the Little Bustard was brief glimpses of its head through waving grass stems making getting any photographs impossible. He was not in the best of moods when he returned to the hotel. Again another example of a poor thought put into the setup.

Given the ever strengthening and cooling wind we decided to cancel the afternoon hide booking and just go out in the car around some local farm tracks to see if we could find some birds to photograph. It quickly became obvious that the strong winds had suppressed bird activity and despite slowly driving around many kilometers of farm track the only birds we could find within photography distance were the occasional Corn Bunting and Crested Lark.

Overall not our most successful day. What would tomorrow bring as Steve was heading to the Hoopoe hide and I was destined for one of the Little Bustard hides. Hopefully I would be put in a different one to which Steve had been placed that morning which turned out to be useless from a photography perspective.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Exploring Extremadura: Day 3 pm - An Evening on the Tiles

After waking from the afternoon siesta, I stepped out of the darkness into the brilliant sunshine bathing the small balcony of my room. It did not look promising for our planned evening session. The sun was drifting slowly and downwards to the right and a strong breeze was blowing from the left. With wind and light coming from opposite directions we were going to struggle in the hide as the birds would be landing or tending to face away from us.

We were collected outside the hotel and a after a short journey, we head down a rough farm track to an abandoned and derelict building with a partially collapsed roof which was being used a nest site by a colony of Lesser Kestrel.  A small hide, raised up on scaffolding had been constructed alongside of the building providing a birds eye view over the roof area. As predicted the light and wind were in completed opposite directions and the first kestrel there came into the land came in from behind us to land facing away from us and sat on the sloping tiles looking in the opposite direction. We were going to struggle for photos a little here. The photograph below gives a view from the hide to give you some idea of the scene before us.

Two things to note from this photograph. Firstly in the centre of the image is a male Lesser Kestrel facing away from us. The second is the Spotless Starling on the crest of the roof to the left. The Spotless Starling was very entertaining, as we sat in the hide waiting for the kestrels to appear, as it was singing continuously in winging fluttering full volume throughout our visit. It was also imitating the calls and songs of around a dozen different bird species and including Golden Oriole.

After the small disturbance of our arrival at the hide, the Lesser Kestrels quickly started to return. My estimate there was probably around 4 pairs nesting under the tiles on the side of the roof we could see and probably others on the other side of the roof.

Over the next 3 hours as the sun slowly dipped behind us, there was a steady stream of kestrels appearing in front of the elevated hide. Males would frequently arrive with giant centipedes to present to the female that would usually appear from under one of the terracotta roof tiles. It is obvious why these warmer areas are so productive for birds with the abundance of large insect prey. A feature that is notably absent from the cooler climate and more intensively farmed lands of the UK.

The wind being in the wrong direction was annoying as it not only prevented any flight photos but also on a few occasions we had pairs of kestrel mating on the tiles in front of us. However, it was always with their backs to the hide. 

Given that we had plenty of time left on the trip, we decided we would book another evening session in the hide when the wind would be in a more favourable direction.

As the light became low behind thin hazy clouds, we heard the rattling engine of the car approaching up the farm track to collect us. It has been enjoyable session watching the Lesser Kestrel and their interactions at close quarters but at the same slightly frustrating as a much greater variety of images could have be achieved if the wind had been in a more favourable direction.

Back hotel we went straight into the evening meal which was particularly unmemorable and not great at all, before going through the evening ritual of sorting kit and images out. The alarm clock was set to stun for another early start in the morning.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Exploring Extremadura: Day 3 am - Azure Wings

The phone alarm vibrated into life on the side cabinet beside the bed to announce the start of another day in Spain. It was still dark outside, as I rolled out of the bed into my clothes and downstairs to the bar for a quick coffee before we departed to our hide for the morning. This morning's session was to concentrate on Azure-winged Magpies. Regular readers will know I am a big corvid fan and was looking forward to seeing some of these birds having only previously seen them in my local zoo.

The weather was not looking typically 'Spanish' with thick grey clouds above with the occasional light shower but it appeared likely that the clouds would break during our session and let some light through. It was around a twenty minute drive to the magpie site and which ended in the usual long winding farm track into a lovely looking area of rough grassland interspersed with clumps of mature trees.

It looked like we would be in for another cramped hide session given the size of the hide, which was also fitted at the front with glass to photograph through. I am not a big fan of glass fronted hides but I understand why hide operators use them. To get the best quality images requires the lens hood to be removed and the front of the lens placed as close and square to the glass as possible. It also seems to help if the lens aperture is stopped down a little rather than using a wide open lens.

In front of the hide there was a large table structure which had a lined shallow pool of water on top, a grassed area at the back and a number of perches strategically placed around it. Before our hosts left some peanuts were scattered strategically around the drinking pool and perches. We did not have long to wait before the first birds arrived, in the shape of Spotless Starlings, although the light was still fairly low with the dense cloud cover above.

These birds have a very glossy feathers with an attractive iridescent sheen and almost look like they have been dipped in oil.
They were also being very vocal and had a wide repertoire of calls and songs that included mimicking some other birds.
Behind the pool and perches we could see a pair of Woodchat Shrike and the female paid a brief visit to one of the perches.
The first of the Azure Winged Magpies started to arrive. The light was still poor so the most of the early images ended up getting deleted. These are such beautiful birds and easy to see where they got their name. This species of magpies appeared slightly smaller and milder in manner than the European Magpie than I am accustomed to.
The clouds above were starting to break letting some soft warm early morning light through as the numbers of magpies arriving increased.
 At one point the magpies all disappeared for some unknown reasons resulting in some the appearance of some other species. Such as Spotless Starling and a Corn Bunting in 'key jangling' song.
A cuckoo was also moving around and perched on a branch above the water pool but we frustratingly could not take photographs of the bird due to the confines of the cramped hide and problems with shooting up through the glass at an angle. Whatever had put the magpies off from visiting had obviously now passed and they soon started to return once more. This gave plenty of opportunities for some additional photographs of the birds.
I suppose my main disappointment was the hide didn't really offer any good opportunities for any flight images, particularly with the glass. I was looking forward to getting some flight images having spent hours photographing the European magpie in flight.

All too soon the familiar rattle of a the car engine was approaching and the session was over. It was time to return to the hotel, find some lunch, sort out the camera gear and morning's images and hopefully fit in a a quick siesta before leaving for the evening hide session.


Related Posts with Thumbnails