Extremadura - 'revisited'
During our stay with Martin Kelsey in May 2017 he suggested that we might want to consider experiencing a different time of year by going back in January or February to see the Common Cranes and some of the waterfowl that winter in the area, and to have a better opportunity of finding Great and Little Bustards. It sounded like a good idea and, although we couldn’t make it the following year due to other commitments, we did arrange a return visit for late January 2019.
Most of the northwest European population of Common Crane migrate to Spain during the winter months as the country has a mild climate and abundant food sources due to changes in farming practice. The birds particularly favour Extremadura as the Iberian dehasa woodlands (that I described in the original write-up) and adjoining cereal crop and rice fields provide the perfect habitat for daytime foraging. There are also several large bodies of water where the birds can safely roost in the shallows at night. The cranes start arriving in October and remain in the area till late February or early March before making their way back to their northern breeding grounds.
Common Crane [Grus grus]
I’d read that during the previous few years there had been in excess of 100,000 birds wintering across the region so, naturally, I assumed that it would be relatively easy to grab a few shots and, over the course of the week, build up a nice portfolio of photos. Surprisingly it turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected!
On our first day we headed over to the rice fields around Madrigalejo as Martin was confident that we’d see plenty of birds there and it would be a good place to start the week. Well, he was certainly right regarding seeing the cranes as we saw thousands of them. It was an incredible sight but, despite their abundance, they were very hard to photograph as they proved to be extremely wary of an approaching vehicle and would take flight before you got even remotely close to them. The best opportunities were with small family groups, but even when we managed to find more confiding birds they would start walking away as soon as you stopped. Obviously I tried getting out and approaching them on foot, but the areas the birds were congregating in were just too open. They were accustomed to seeing tractors working the fields or the odd vehicle driving past, but were certainly not used to vehicles stopping or people on foot.
It was a nice day though and it was certainly a great experience to see so many birds gathered together, but from a photography point of view it was pretty frustrating and, to make the situation even more challenging, it was really bright and contrasty.
We had a chat that evening and agreed that whilst we wanted to maximise our opportunities with the cranes we didn’t want to miss out on seeing other things. We still had six days, so we worked out a plan that would allow us two or three hours each day to photograph cranes at different locations as well as visiting various other places that Martin had earmarked. What we hadn’t banked on was the weather changing, because two days later it was heavily overcast and raining!
Common Crane - adult
Common Crane - immature
Cranes in the rain - an early morning gathering in a stubble field
We persevered with the cranes as planned, but continued to experience the same problems and, despite all the effort we put in, I only ended up with around thirty photos that were worth keeping. But, as I noted earlier, it was really good to witness the spectacle and, at times, it really was a spectacle, such as when we witnessed several thousand birds coming together in a field in the early evening for a pre-roost gathering with the rose-tinged Villuercas Mountains in the background.
In addition to the large flocks of cranes, we also saw an incredible gathering of Northern Shoveler when a thousand plus birds had congregated below the dam wall on the Alcollarin Reservoir. And on another day, we counted 440 Cormorant from a viewpoint above the Tiétar valley that were resting on a shingle beach by the river.
Griffon Vultures [Gyps fulvus]
During the course of the week we revisited quite a few of the places we’d been to in 2017. We saw plenty of Griffon and a few Black Vultures again at the ‘Portilla del Tiétar’ viewpoint in Monfragüe and, albeit at some distance, a Spanish Imperial Eagle and a pair of Golden Eagles. We also stopped off at the ‘Salto de Gitano’ viewpoint to photograph more vultures and to try to get some better shots of the Blue Rock-Thrush. I spent a fair bit of time scouring the rocks for these elusive birds and, although I saw a couple, they were no closer than they were previously. There were also a few Black Redstarts around, but the problem with this location is that you’re invariably looking down at the birds, which isn’t great.
Griffon Vulture [Gyps fulvus]
We did get to see both Great and Little Bustards on the plains near Santa Marta de Magasca, and around the vicinity of the Monroy road. Taking photos was a different matter though as the birds were either at distance or, in respect of our one and only sighting of a flock of Little Bustard, were virtually hidden amongst the dried vegetation. I got a few ‘record shots’ so was able to list both birds as new species, but that’s about it. It was a similar situation with most of the other species but, in fairness, the vast bulk of our time was with the cranes.
Great Bustard [Otis tarda]
Some of the other birds that I haven’t specifically mentioned that we saw, although not necessarily photographed, during the week included Merlin, Hen Harrier, Bonelli’s Eagle, Pin-tailed and Black Grouse, Spoonbill, Avocet, Hoopoe, Corn Bunting, Calandra Lark and Spanish Sparrow.
Spanish Sparrow - aka.Willow Sparrow [Passer hispaniolensis]
Footnote : I’m conscious that this isn’t a particularly informative trip report and that the overriding message seems to be all about how challenging it was from a photography point of view. In fairness, if this had been a one-off trip just to see the cranes it probably wouldn’t have featured as a ‘places’ location write-up, but as it was effectively a continuation of the main Extremadura article I thought that it should be included for completeness. If I think about the trip purely from a photography point of view it wasn’t a great success, but we did see the cranes, and the bustards, and got a few shots, which was the primary reason for going back. But, sometimes it’s not all about the photography and I think this was definitely one of those occasions because, taking everything into account, we had a great week. Yes, we did have a fair bit of rain on a couple of days which was annoying, although not the end of the world by any means especially as we were in the comfort of a warm Landrover, but the rest of the time the sun was out and the weather was certainly better than it would have been at home. It was a good time of the year to go away. It was also a very relaxing trip given that Martin acted as taxi driver in respect of being picked up and taken back to Madrid airport, and was the one doing all the driving whilst we were there. I don’t want to over sell it, but I have to say that staying with Martin Kelsey and his wife Claudia at their small guesthouse is a real home-from-home experience. The location, the accommodation, the dining room and Claudia's food are all wonderful. And, of course, Martin is both an expert on the area and an extremely knowledgable ‘birder’, and if you arrange for him to guide you you’ll find that he’s one of the nicest and accommodating persons you’re likely to meet. In fact, I’d be happy to spend another week at ‘Casa Rural El Recuerdo’ without the constant feeling that I should be taking photos.