Monday, September 25, 2017

Exploring Extremadura - Days 1 and 2am: The Vultures Descend

Back in mid-April, I headed off on my annual overseas trip. Having spent the last two trips in cold places, Iceland and Arctic Norway, I decided this year I would head southwards and to warmer and sunnier climes. So starting about 6 months before the trip arrangements were made for a trip for myself and my friend Steve Round to spend 10 days in Extremadura and the surrounding areas in Spain. For those of you who have not heard of this area, it is about 1.5 -2 hours drive South-West of Madrid. An area of mountains and expansive steppe grasslands that is renowned for its diversity and abundance of bird life.

The plan for the holiday was a flight from Madrid, pick up a hire car, drive down to Calera y Chozas which would be our base for the stay. The first 5 days would be spent photographing birds from some hides setup and operated by Hides de Calera and the remaining days would be spent wandering the hills and farmland to see what birds we could find. Regular readers will know I am not a great fan of fixed hides but they are a means to an end.

Equipment for the trip would be a Canon 1dx2, Canon 5dmk4, 600mm II F4 lens, 100-400 II lens with both the 1.4x and 2x extenders. A tripod, monopod, skimmer, and a Uniqball head completed the setup. Of course this was combined with the usual laptop and double portable drive back up.

The day of departure was a fairly relaxed affair as we had a late afternoon Easyjet departure from Liverpool to Madrid. This was fairly stress free with the speedy boarding, extra leg-room seats and easy hand luggage restrictions for the photography equipment. All went smoothly and we were soon collecting our luggage at Madrid. Collecting the hire car was a long-drawn out aware as the hire company insisted on photographically recording every minute dent and paintwork scratch on the Opal Mokka. We were soon on the road but it took a couple of laps of the complicated road system around the airport before we hit the right road towards our destination. It took a little while to find our hotel once we reached Calera y Chozas at around 11:30 pm, mainly because we had driven right past it in the dark. Our accommodation for the 10 nights was the low cost Hostal Restaurante Cuatro Caminos. Our rooms were large and clean but rather spartan.

Once in my room, I quickly sorted out my stuff and got a pile of clothes and the camera equipment ready for the next day as we would be getting picked up around 5:30am for the first hide session. I got into bed, slightly weary from the travel, to find the walls gently vibrating to some extremely loud snoring coming from a room two doors away down the corridor. I could only guess how loud it must have been in Steve's room next door. Outside, a Scoops Owl started its monotone repeated call...which went on for most of the night as I drifted in and out of a restless sleep. I never sleep well anywhere on the first night.

The phone's alarm rattled into life at 5am and could just about be heard above the snoring rumble. I was quickly dressed and downstairs and managed to grab a quick coffee and a pre-packed choc-au-pain for breakfast. Steve and I joined two other photographers in the darkness outside the front of the hotel and after a short wait two cars arrived to collect us. The hide session for the morning would primarily be aimed at vultures and other birds that arrived at a feed site around 50 minutes drive to the north. It looked like we would be in for a morning of good weather and light. We came off the main road and headed up a track that wound its way through rough grazing pasture before arriving at two small hides. The hides were situated at the edge of a large meadow with a back drop of the snow-topped Gredos mountains. Jose had explained that the flowering of the meadow has been inhibited by a recent prolonged dry spell.

Steve and I were allocated the left hand hide which I was pleased with as we had an attractive patch of flowering lavender to the left together with various old bits of tree stumps for the birds to perch on. This was the scene in front of the hide.

 As we settled in to the hide, Jose emptied and spread a dustbin of meat scraps around the area in front of the two hides. All we had to now was wait for the birds to arrive and it didn't take long. The first birds to arrive where White Stork and we soon had a dozen birds strutting around picking of bits of meat scrap in front of the hide. The soft early light making it easier to get a nice exposure on the the extensive white of these birds. I have photographed Stork previously, and it is always challenging to find a nice clean bird but there were a couple amongst the group.

Next to arrive, where half a dozen Ravens and a number of Black Kites. The ravens, although a large bird, seemed strangely dwarfed by the birds around them and arriving.

Typically the Kites were tending to swoop down and grab pieces of meat from the ground but we did manage to a couple of perches that stopped briefly to perch.

By this point we could see the vultures were circling in and descending downward into the site. They were landing away from the feed area and numbers were now quickly building  to around 80 birds with a 50 / 50 mix of Griffon Vulture and the larger Cinereous Vulture. It seemed that the numbers of vulture needed to build before they got sufficient 'courage' to move in on the food by foot.  These are massive and impressive birds.

Starting off with a selection of the Griffon Vultures.....

....and the larger Cinereous Vulture

After a short frenzied feeding spell by the birds, everything quietened down and the majority of vultures seemed to go into sun-bathing mode soaking up the early morning rays. After a while they started to slowly disperse presumably to take advantage of the developing thermals in the rapidly increasing temperature. However, the departure of the birds  did give some nice opportunities for some low level flight photographs as these birds require a long 'runway' to get airborne.

In the late morning, we heard the sound of  an approaching vehicle up the farm track and it was time to depart. It had been enjoyable and productive start of our Spanish trip. Arriving back at the hotel we sorted out the camera gear and photo downloading and backup before heading out into the midday sun to find some well needed lunch. While we were out we popped into the local supermarket and stocked up on some food and drink supplies for the week ahead. There was just time for a quick siesta to make up for the relatively early start before heading out for an evening session with some bee-eaters which will be the subject of my next post.


Wood Fairy said...

fabulous pics as always, you have captured their movement and detail so well.

Paul Foster said...

Great to see you blogging again Richard!!


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